Why Milk Alternatives Aren’t Always Good for You—Or the Planet


by Casey Walker

The dairy industry is in danger. According to a USDA report, milk and dairy product sales have fallen 4.1 percent in the past year (even as milk prices dropped by nearly 40 percent), and the United States has spent $20 million purchasing surplus dairy product to support American farms. Dairy-free consumers are contributing to a declining demand for dairy products and increasing demand for milk substitutes. One study reports a 250 percent increase in almond milk sales in the last five years alone. But how healthy and sustainable are these alternatives, really?

Dairy alternatives sell themselves as organic and healthful, but they’re often highly processed (after all, you can’t exactly milk an almond as you would a cow). Some require much more water and energy to produce than milk. As a result, their ecological impact is even more significant than that of traditional dairy production. Here, we break down the health and environmental implications of cow milk production and consumption compared to four popular dairy substitutes.

Cow’s Milk

Many people refuse to consume milk because of lactose intolerance, allergies, or ethical concerns. Others cut dairy because they doubt that it’s healthy.

From a nutritional perspective, it’s considered a dietary mainstay. “Dairy is a wonderful source of protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin D,” says Elizabeth Avery, a nutritionist and registered dietitian in Boston. These are all vital nutrients that need to be replaced in a diet when dairy is absent, whether through other whole foods or a milk substitute.

The dairy industry, however, is a strain on the environment. From the mass quantities of water needed to feed cows to the effects of methane gas the animals produce, dairy farms leave a major environmental footprint. It takes about 144 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of milk.

Almond Milk

Almond milk has some of the health benefits of almonds and provides some of the protein and calcium that milk does, delivered with less fat. However, many commercial almond milks contain high amounts of sugar and very few almonds. Popular brand Blue Diamond has been criticized for containing only 2 percent almonds.

“Is almond milk better than eating almonds? No. You could just as well eat a handful of almonds, and in fact you’d get more nutrients for your money,” says Judith Mabel, a Boston-based nutritionist and dietitian. For almond milk to be nutritionally worthwhile, a consumer needs to look for fortified versions.

According to Mother Jones, a single almond takes about 1.1 gallons of water to produce. It takes about 2 pounds of almonds to produce 1 gallon of almond milk, so that amounts to nearly 920 gallons of water used per single gallon of almond milk. Because 99 percent of almonds consumed in America come from California, recently stricken by some of the worst droughts in history, almond production is having a major environmental impact. Farmers are reacting to rising demands by planting almonds in lieu of other crops or raising cattle, and the ecological consequences could be devastating.

Soy Milk

Soy milk has been around for a long time – evidence of its consumption dates back to the early Han dynasty in China, though it didn’t gain much popularity or spread globally until the 19th century. This dairy alternative contains levels of protein, fat and carbohydrates comparable to cow’s milk, though it lacks the calcium content. Additionally, soy milk isn’t a source of bad cholesterol.

“I would recommend soy milk,” says nutritionist Avery, “it’s low in calories, high in protein, and contains vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin D and potassium.”

The environmental impact of soy milk is an improvement on cow’s milk. A 2011 study by the Institute for Water Education found that producing a gallon of soy milk takes only 28 percent of the water required to produce a gallon of cow’s milk. The study looked at five farms in three different countries and found that, in general, the farms that grew organic soybeans used the least water. Especially compared to almond milk, soy milk has a significantly lower environmental impact.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is a close match in substance and taste to regular milk. Even in production, thick coconut cream rises to the top just as the cream in dairy milk does. These properties make it a good substitute in many recipes, and its culinary significance is proved by its widespread use in the cuisines of South and Southeast Asia. However, coconut milk contains large amounts of fat, which has been linked in studies to an increased risk for heart disease.

“My least recommended milk is coconut because it does not contain protein and it is higher in fat than 2 percent cow’s milk. It does not naturally contain a significant amount of calcium or vitamin D,” says Avery. When looking to replace dairy with coconut milk, buyers should look for fortified products and stay conscious of their fat intake.

Coconut farming is relatively low impact and seems poised to stay that way so long as demand remains stable. One concern is the plant’s introduction to tropical climates in the Americas, as a 2009 Stanford study examined. Coconut trees are native to Southeast Asia, and their growth in the Western hemisphere can deter seabirds from nesting and disrupt fragile ecosystems.

Rice Milk

The primary benefit of rice milk is that it’s easy for infants and children to stomach. It is, however, lacking in calcium and high in carbohydrates. “Rice milk has the least nutrients and the poorest amino acid profile of all [milk substitutes],” warns Mabel. Since rice is a food with little nutritional value, it follows that products derived from it are likewise nutritionally void.

It takes about 6 1/2 ounces of rice to make 1 gallon of rice milk. Since 1 pound of rice takes about 229 gallons of water to grow, that means it takes about 122 gallons of water to grow the rice used in 1 gallon of rice milk. Rice is produced on a massive scale in many countries where the climate is naturally suited to its growth. Compared to cow’s milk, the amount of water used is similar, but since California is the largest American dairy producer in the U.S. (and regularly experiences major droughts), the environmental impact is further reduced in comparison.

About the Author

Casey Walker currently studies nonfiction writing and publishing at Emerson College. She writes for the Boston music blog Allston Pudding and interns for culture: the word on cheese. She loves all things travel, food and music. Follow her @csywlkr.

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