Swapping dairy milk for plant-based alternatives: what are the benefits?

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Nowadays, in a world of ever-increasing plant-based alternatives and a variety of options that vegans ten years ago could only have dreamed of, more and more consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of what they buy. Mainly owing to an increased awareness of climate issues, as well as nutritional or medical reasons, the popularity of plant-based alternatives to dairy milk has soared in recent years. 

With more demand comes more choice, and an increasing amount of plant-based alternatives are becoming more widely available every year, with the likes of cashew milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, macadamia milk, and many more recently making their debut. However, as these choices are relatively new on the market, they are less abundant in local supermarkets than the likes of almond, soy, or oat, which are a little more accessible to the average consumer. 

Of course, no substitute is going to be the perfect choice for everyone; all plant-based alternatives have their setbacks in terms of nutritional benefits and environmental impacts. However, one thing is certain: milk substitutes are definitely better for the planet than dairy milk, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford. They found that the production of just one glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milks, as well as using nine times more land than the equivalent glass of any plant-based milk.

Today, almond milk is generally the most popular dairy alternative, with sales in the U.S., for example, occupying 63% of the total market in 2020. Fortified almond milk is generally lower in calories than cow’s milk, and many almond milk brands will add vitamin D, essential for calcium in the body, or vitamin B12, ensuring the nervous system is kept healthy. In this way, fortified almond milk brands ensure that the body is consuming much of the same nutrients as it would when consuming cow’s milk. 

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Most fortified almond milk also contains high levels of vitamin E, which helps to promote healthy skin as well as protecting against conditions such as heart disease. One nutritional drawback of most brands of almond milk is the lack of protein compared to cow’s milk, so it’s important to read the label and ensure you are consuming dairy alternatives in tune with a balanced diet.

However, concerns have increasingly been raised about the environmental impact of almond milk. Although its greenhouse gas emissions are significantly less than that of cow’s milk, the production of almond milk requires extremely high water usage – more than any other dairy alternative – in particular in California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are grown. 

In 2014, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones outlined the potentially dire ecological consequences of the almond crop, with over-pumping of aquifers – the underground layer of rock which holds groundwater – posing a threat to vital infrastructures like bridges, roads, and irrigation canals. Furthermore, the overproduction of the almond crop in these areas poses a huge threat to honeybees needed for the pollination of almonds; in Philpott’s words – “Hauling in 1.6 million honeybee hives into an area dripping with insecticides is a recipe for disaster.”

In contrast, soy milk is one of the more sustainable plant-based options. Greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower in the production of soy than in the production of dairy, and the main environmental factors to take into account largely depend on whereabouts the soybeans are being sourced from; soybeans are mass-produced in the Amazon to be used as animal feed, for example; however, a large majority of companies who produce soy milk, such as Alpro, source their ingredients organically. 

Alpro states that 60% of their soybeans are sourced from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with the rest coming from Canada, citing themselves “rainforest and GMO-free”. In this sense, the main environmental factor when considering soy milk would be to research the company you are buying from and from where they source their soybeans. 

Out of all plant-based alternatives, soy milk is also the one that has the most similar nutritional values to cow’s milk, a reason why many parents of children with lactose allergies turn to soy milk as their first option; it’s a great source of potassium and has a very similar protein content to that of cow’s milk. In terms of fat, whole cow’s milk is high in saturated fat, associated with high cholesterol, while on the other hand, polyunsaturated fats are added to soy milk, making soy milk a source of “good” fats.

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Finally, oat milk is gaining severe popularity in recent years and is often the most renowned of all plant-based options for its remarkable creaminess in texture and slightly sweet taste, making it very similar to cow’s milk: a plus for those struggling with making the switch. The environmental impact of oat milk is also significantly less than that of dairy; more than ten times the amount of land needed for oat milk is needed for dairy milk.

Of course, these products all have differences in flavour and texture; plant-based milks aren’t one size fits all. It’s important to research and try different variations if you’re thinking of making the switch, as well as taking into account the nutritional information of each in order to maintain a balanced diet. All in all, the main benefits of plant-based alternatives are their environmental impact (or lack thereof). 

The consequences and environmental impacts of what we consume and buy in our daily lives has never been more relevant than in the current climate, and, in recent years, the detriment of the livestock industry on the planet has become clearer than ever. Choosing your milk substitute will largely be down to personal circumstances and taste, but rest assured, whichever option you go with, you’ll know your oat flat white or soy latte is having a much less degrading impact on the planet.

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Rachel McLoughlin

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