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The Milk Dilemma is Nuttier than You Think: The Truth Behind Plant-Based Alternatives

When enjoying a cup of coffee brewed with a re-usable coffee filter, you may feel good about the low environmental impact you're having (and rightly so), but what happens when you add milk? Is your cup of joe no longer sustainable?

While most of us are aware of the issues that plague the dairy industry, dropping dairy in exchange for a plant-based milk alternative could be doing as much harm as good. Our markets and grocery stores are flooded with all kinds of nut, soy, and plant-based non-dairy options, but the truth is that some are nutritionally and environmentally superior than others. It's hard to make an informed decision without all the facts, so let's take an objective look at the most popular non-dairy milk alternatives on the market. 

Almond Milk

Almonds in a white ramekin

Benefits √

Unsweetened almond milk boasts more than a third less calories than whole cow's milk and zero grams of sugar. It contains no saturated fat and provides a whopping 50% more calcium than a cup of cow's milk. It's completely vegan, lactose free, and a good source of vitamin A. Nutritionally, almond milk is a far superior alternative to cow's milk. 

Downsides ☓

Despite almond's milk nutritional benefits, producing it has significant environmental disadvantages. First of all, it requires about 920 gallons of water to make one gallon of almond milk, which is a concern compounded by the fact the water-stressed state of California grows most of the world's almonds. 

In addition, a recent report put out by the Guardian explains how almond production is wiping out the honeybee population. A recent survey of commercial beekeepers showed that 50 billion bees – more than seven times the world’s human population – were wiped out in a few months during winter 2018-19

This staggering statistic is reportedly due to the large amount of pesticides used in almond production coupled with the huge population of honeybees used to pollinate the almond orchards. Despite its nutritional advantages, almond milk has a detrimental overall impact on the environment. 

Oat Milk

Oat milk in carton next to coffee mug

Benefits √

Oak milk has the highest amount of calories compared to other plant-based milks but still less than whole cow's milk. Oat milk is vegan and high in a soluble fiber that may help lower blood cholesterol. It's often fortified with B vitamins, vitamin D, and calcium, which can positively contribute to bone health. Overall, oat milk is nutritionally healthier than cow's milk. Additionally, oat milk has a lower adverse environmental impact compared to soy and almond milk. To produce one pound of oats, it takes one-sixth the amount of water and resources needed to produce one pound of almonds.

Downsides ☓

The sweetened options can be high in sugar - so if you're looking for a low sugar milk alternative, choose unsweetened oat milk. Although the sugar present in oat milk is natural, the milk contains more carbohydrates overall than other plant-based alternatives. So while oat milk is nutritionally healthier than cow's milk, it is more caloric than other non-dairy alternatives. 

Rice Milk

Foamy latte in a dark cafe

Benefits √

Rice milk is the least likely of all milk products to cause allergies. It contains less calories than whole cow's milk and less sugar, but more carbohydrates. Overall, it's healthier than cow's milk in terms of calories and is ideals for people with lactose intolerance or allergies to milk, soy, or nuts. 

Downsides ☓

Rice has been reported to contain higher levels of inorganic arsenic which can pose health concerns when consumed in high quantities. In addition, it offers no significant source of protein, calcium, or vitamin D. From an environmental standpoint, rice milk also requires quite a lot of water in its production, but comparatively less than almonds. 

Hemp Milk

Hemp leaves with sunlight filtering through

Benefits √

Hemp milk is low in calories, contains no sugar, and offers a good source of protein. It also provides a natural source of calcium and doesn't require the fortification of other non-dairy alternatives. It's also vegan and high in omega-3s. The best part about hemp milk is its extremely low environmental impact. It requires very little water to grow and also grows without the use of herbicides and pesticides. From both a nutritional and environmental standpoint, it's one of the best plant-based milk alternatives you can buy. 

Downsides ☓

The only downside to hemp milk is that it doesn't provide as much protein as cow's milk and isn't a natural source of vitamin D. 

Coconut Milk

Glass of coconut milk on a set table

Benefits √

Unsweetened coconut milk is low in calories and carbs and has less fat than whole cow's milk. The milk contains medium-chain triglycerides, which is a type of fat that has been loosely linked with weight loss. From an environmental standpoint, coconut milk has a low negative impact and requires little water to grow. Coconuts are also known to sequester carbon in soil - which is a good thing for the environment. 

Downsides ☓

Coconut milk does not provide a significant source of protein or the vitamins and minerals offered by other plant-based alternatives. In addition, despite the low impact of farming coconuts, because they're grown in tropical climates, the milk has to be transported long distances to reach our shelves and markets, which results in a higher carbon footprint than other non-dairy alternatives.