‘Plant based milk alternatives…’
It’s a near certainty you’ll have heard this phrase used often during discussions concerning plant-based milk vs cow milk.
Or involving sustainability more broadly.
But for something so simple, milk and its plant-based alternatives can be surprisingly divisive.
The goal of this post is for you to leave better informed and perhaps willing to step out of your comfort zone by trying something new.
You never know what you may learn.
Now, to the list. While l hope it informs you, l hope you’re spoiled in the process…
Intro – the many faces of plant-based alternatives
Yes, l am making a milk pun.
I just didn’t wish for this post to seem a little off so early on.
Fine, fine. I will desist with the dairy-related humour.
Though in all seriousness, as advocation for sustainability and veganism have grown, so has that against the consumption of dairy milk.
Well as a 2019 study, among a growing assortment of others, indicated, producing dairy milk yielded nearly 3x as much greenhouse emissions than any plant-based milk.
What’s more, cows require a lot of land for pasture – 9 times in fact – and for receiving an adequate amount of feed, which in turn, results in the cow’s production of methane.
And though carbon dioxide is the celebrity of greenhouse gases, it is methane which is the dark horse.
Primarily because it possesses greater potency. 84x more potent according to the EDF.
Consuming planted based milk alternatives
l mention all this because the choices we make regarding our consumption, undeniably contribute to environmental issues, especially when aggregated together.
So, what about these alternatives? These plan based milk alternatives?
Well, they are something to consider.
Especially if you’re considering options as a vegan milk source.
Partially because there is so many of them you are bound to sample one that appeals to you. But more simply, because if you don’t try you won’t ever know.
Certainly, plant based milk alternatives have limitations:
- Whether a crop requires such large amounts of land that it affects local biodiversity
- Perhaps if the farming-process undermines the local economy and indigenous communities
- Or if grown negligently the crops can consume masses of water and add to climate change
With that in mind, here is the highly subjective, but based around evidence and science, list of plant based milk alternatives.
I promise it will amoose you
1. Almond – a disingenuous plant based milk alternative
First up, the famous, or should that be the infamous, almond.
One of the most mainstream and widely available in Western or advanced economies, almond milk is definitely a pleasant alternative and acting as a solid accompaniment.
I used to thoroughly enjoy a cup of milk…
Ok, who am l kidding that did not happen. But I enjoyed it as part of protein shakes or smoothies.
That is until l came to understand the significance of its environmental impact. Namely the quantity of water it takes to produce one measly glass.
It’s completely nuts.
Essentially, while almond trees are tiny relative to coconut trees, they are much more of a speciality plant. This means as trees they’re much more sensitive to their surroundings, thus requiring that their habitats possess much less biodiversity.
And after all this effort? They possess some of the lowest protein of any plant-based alternative and if you check closely on a standard carton they’ll often reveal that it contains only 2% almonds.
Of which isn’t even that, since manufacturers often remove the skin to help with preparation.
You know, the bit which actually contains all the nutrients like fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Completely absurd.
2020 edit: So, an additional delightful update l came across, in the form of this article, highlights how almonds are contributing to the deterioration in honeybee populations and survivability.
Well, if so, l encourage you to check out this post, which as being authored by NASA will only emphasise the significance of this more.
And to read my other post which covers pea milk vs almond milk.
In a nutshell, while almond milk is one of the most freely available:
- It utilises resources in such a way that it makes it as unsustainable as dairy milk
- It is actively creating more harm with its pressure upon both economic and natural systems
2. Rice – a weak contender with plant based diet benefits
Next up, rice milk.
Relatively inexpensive and arguably, a widely plant-based alternative to dairy milk, rice offers the least allergenic option, making it a suitable choice for those intolerant to nuts, gluten or dairy.
And it tastes nice and creamy, yum.
Except, that’s about it. As while you’re savouring it all, you know what nutritional benefits you’re acquiring from it?
That rice milk is not willing to help you out.
Well, relative to the other plant based milk alternatives here, and significantly less than dairy milk, rice milk offers minuscule protein and positive fats, while still coming steeped with carbohydrates.
Equally, much like its almond accomplice, it requires a ridiculous amount of water to produce, resulting in all the previously mentioned limitations.
But there is more.
Rice milk also produces the most amount of greenhouse emissions due to the way rice fields, known as paddies, release tonnes of that potent methane in the atmosphere. While the farming methods, such as the fertilisers applied to the paddies pollute ecosystems and malnourish communities.
All in all not very rice…ahem, sorry, nice.
While readily available, as a plant-based alternative:
- Rice milk offers little as a primary nutritional contender
- And meanwhile, is wreaking environmental havoc alongside putting indigenous communities at risk
3. Coconut – an ok source for plant based nutrition
Third, the almighty coconut.
Except, it isn’t almighty. No, it isn’t even alright.
Indeed, although coconuts are symbolised as exotic, tropic and naturalistic, it is this very fame that, when consumed out of their traditional homes, makes them so unsustainable.
And coconuts while tasting nice, don’t serve as the best plant based sources for protein either.
To meet global demand, regions which produce them like India, Indonesia or the Philippines see their workers hugely exploited. What’s more, the space they should utilise to produce family food is prioritised for these nutjobs.
The coconuts, not the farmers.
Finally, these coconuts also contribute to the masses of deforestation, since coconut trees – a specific member of the palm tree family, need a lot of their own space.
I think they like their independence or something.
In reality its merely that they are environmental unfriendly in both local and global terms, making there more suitable alternatives for you to enjoy with your morning coffee.
Or not, l won’t judge if you have your coffee black. Well not completely.
If you do wish to enact the Ice Age squirrel for yourself:
- Do so in the native climates that the coconuts grow, they’ll taste far better anyway
- Or at the very least, choose products certified Fair Trade and support local producers and economies
4. Hemp and flax – a newer plant-based alternative
Fourth, comes lesser-known contenders of hemp and flax milk.
I have included them together as they represent similar nutritional content and reflect a growing theme of smaller or ‘niche’ sources for sustainable products.
Both possess a slightly sweet, funnily enough, nutty taste and most likely resemble lighter skimmed milk.
Which isn’t everyone’s preference.
Equally, they contain similar fat quantities to diary milk, half the calories but also half the protein. A case of one step forward, one step back.
However, where they come up trumps is their suitability for vegans or vegetarians since the proteins supplied are high-quality and not diluted as many mainstream plant-based alternatives.
Here’s looking at you almond.
The biggest limitation here revolves around availability. Since these are lesser-known, niche products they, at least when writing this, are produced in the northern hemisphere in smaller amounts making them harder to encounter for some.
If considering shifting away from the conventional nuts:
- Hemp and flax milks are low in calories, low in carbs, but also in proteins, though these are high-quality
- Somewhat niche, making them a greater challenge to simply find in traditional places
5. Hazel – an upcoming plant based milk alternative
Fifth, the emergence of hazelnut milk.
Like that of the nutritional values of number four, but in more mainstream like to those of almonds, hazelnuts, at least for me, offer the best version of a nut-based alternative to dairy milk.
Especially, if you crave that nutty-flavoured, whatever-it-is-you-add-milk-to, drink.
Indeed, hazelnuts are both nutritional and eco-friendly. Not only do they produce lesser environmental impacts, but they actually help to combat it.
Well, since hazelnuts grow on trees, they contribute to the absorption of greenhouse emissions.
It is a top contender for plant based diet benefits.
Plus, they find favourable conditions in moist, temperature climates. Meaning that they can be widely available to more communities since they’re easier to grow and require less water.
2020 update: much like the revelation l had when l discovered the impact almonds have on honeybees, this is another benefit of hazelnuts. In that they can be pollinated by the wind, removing any need for commercial use of honeybees.
Well, least l think that’s an added bonus.
Perhaps consider following the Ice Age squirrel with this option:
- Hazelnuts offer a combo of nutritional and environmental one-ups next to almond or coconut milk
- Still relatively new, hazelnut milk offers a promising, credible plant-based alternative to dairy milk
6. Soy – the famous plant based milk alternative
And incomes another big boy, the soybean.
Indeed, soy represents the other most widely sold plant-based alternative to dairy milk, second only to that almond nutjob.
But unlike its heavyweight counterpart, soymilk actually possesses many legitimate and sustainable strengths.
It is even recognised as one word in Microsoft Word so you know it’s a big deal.
But more importantly, soymilk retains a similar amount of protein to dairy milk, but only half the amount of the less desired calories, fats and carbs.
But of these, soymilk is the plant-based milk yielding the most rounded, quality proteins, some of which cannot be produced by our bodies.
It’s one of best plant based sources of protein period.
Once, soymilk was a cause for concern for some.
Specifically, fears surrounded whether consuming it would affect people’s hormones, due to the fact soymilk has high concentrations of certain hormone types.
But, as is often the case, these fears were exaggerated.
The science and research have emphasised for that to be the case you would have to consume effectively a trees-worth of soybeans – ie an absurd quantity of soymilk – to experience health problems.
But ironically that does still pose an issue.
Meaning that while as individuals we wont experience any health issues when consuming soymilk, its sheer popularity does mean some environmental concerns.
Environmentally, soymilk is costly. Primarily because soybeans are produced in large quantities for the purposes of feeding livestock for meat, and ironically, dairy milk production. The consequences of which, mirror those of almond and rice milk mentioned earlier.
Though, it should be emphasised, nowhere near to the same extent.
Soymilk is arguably the market-leading plant-based milk but can be done better:
- If you have a choice between dairy milk and soymilk, give soy a try
- Do a little research to figure which local brand you can buy to avoid supporting destructive soybean farming
- Soymilk is a top source for protein for a plant based diet
Oat – the undervalued plant based milk alternative
Lastly, and my go-to, is oat.
Certainly, it has surged in popularity over the late-2010s, and with good reason.
For some, oat milk has a peculiar taste, even unpalatable, which is a legitimate reason not to choose it. Yet, interestingly oat milk as an industry has experienced the largest growth, with more flavours, variations and so on, reflecting that surge in popularity.
Indeed, it actually overtook almond milk in 2019 as the fastest growing.
But unlike almonds, oats are in plentiful supply, with those produced utilised for livestock feed, meaning we can share it for our needs too.
Moreover, oats are simpler to produce, capable of being grown in cooler climates across the globe. Hence, they don’t contribute to deforestation or the undermining of developing economies.
Personally, l find it to be incredibly versatile, using them for smoothies, coffee and even with some actual oats, i.e. porridge, for breakfast.
It does not have quite the same nutritional content as soymilk, but its versatility means l find myself using it in tons of different combinations or with tons of different ingredients.
It provides a certain fullness, has a certain richness to it that soymilk doesn’t.
And provides higher all-round plant based diet benefits.
But that’s a personal preference.
Plus, it’s cheap. Oh, so cheap. Whether buying or making it.
And, so l encourage you if you don’t like a branded oat milk, to experiment at making it yourself as you may well come across a combination you like.
Oat milk has seen the greatest growth recently and you should try it out:
- Oats are so easily sourced they produce very little environmental impacts but will be widely available across different communities or regions
- And because they are so readily available, you can easily have a go at making your own
Takeaways – Plenty of plant-based alternatives
And there it is.
My list of 7 plant-based alternatives to dairy milk from worst to best.
While l aim for impartiality, by not outrightly dismissing the less favourable plant-based alternatives, l do also encourage you to try one, if not all of these plant-based alternatives to find one you like.
Everyone’s circumstances or needs are different. Meaning what is most suitable or most accessible to some, will not be for others.
But that does not mean you should refrain from trying something new at all.
- If you’re yet to try any plant-based alternative to dairy milk, why not try with one listed here? Ideally, one with the lowest environmental impact.
- Or if you’re someone who’s encountered the plant-based scene before, but only ever consumed one type, why not try another? Especially, if it means you benefit from additional nutrients while reducing the environmental impact.
And, if you simply cannot accept switching to a plant-based alternative, l would encourage you to at least look into consuming more organic and environmentally-friendly forms of dairy milk.
Either way, it comes down to the principle of making informed decisions. This post goes into more detail on that.
As these, even more arguably than the type of plant-based alternative, will produce the most profound impacts.
What do you think? Which of the 7 plant-based alternatives would you try? Did l miss any? Do you agree with my rankings?
Let me know in the comments!