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How Does the Milk You Drink Affect the Environment?

Within the last five years, non-dairy milk sales have doubled worldwide.

This increase in sales has raised some questions regarding the environmental impacts as well as the nutritional differences of non-dairy and dairy milk.

Keep reading to find out how almond, soy, coconut, oat, and dairy milk compare in environmental impact including water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and varying nutrition.

Horizon Dairy Cow's Milk
Horizon dairy milk

Dairy Milk

Dairy milk is udderly the biggest environmental offender on the list.

The production of dairy milk generates more greenhouse gases and uses more water and land than all of the non-dairy milk alternatives.

One research study found it would take nine times more land to produce a single glass of dairy milk, compared to almond, oat, and soy milk.

Additionally, due to the cattle, triple the amount of greenhouse gases are released.

Nutrition:

  • High in saturated fat
  • Contains vitamins A and D, calcium and phosphorus
  • High protein (8g per 8 oz)
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Almond Breeze almond milk

Almond Milk

How do you milk an almond? With lots of water . . . right? 

Not quite.

This creamy, nutty drink is a staple amongst non-dairy consumers, with a lower carbon footprint than dairy. However, the production of almonds and their effect on the environment has concerned vegan and non-vegans alike for years.

The argument has long been that almonds need a significant amount of water to grow. One study even found it takes almost four times the amount of water to grow almonds than other non-dairy milks. But that’s just one small sample.

While California-grown almonds have been blamed for drought in the sunny state, almond trees aren’t the “thirstiest” crop. The water scarcity isn’t entirely almond milk’s fault. In fact, almond growers are actively reducing their water usage. Could almond milk be vying for a place at the top of the plant-based milk pantheon again?

Nutrition:

  • Low in calories (30-50 per 8 oz), lower protein (1g per 8 oz)
  • High vitamin E
  • Some added sugars, unsweetened available 
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Silk soy milk

Soy Milk

This milk is the “original” substitution for cow’s milk. Environmentally, soy milk is a conscious choice, using the least amount of water of all plant-based milks and only having moderately higher emissions compared to almond and oat milk.

The downfall to soy is in its land use.

Since most of the world’s soybeans come from Brazil, when demand for soy increases, this can perpetuate the deforestation of the Amazon. It’s important to know where soy comes from, so remember to read the label when buying non-dairy milk!

Nutrition:

  • Known to be “least processed” of all plant-based milks
  • Naturally higher protein (8g per 8 oz.)
  • Good source of manganese, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber
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Pacific Foods coconut milk

Coconut Milk

In the past, coconut milk was primarily used for cooking. Now, producers have gone to this rich drink as a refreshing alternative for dairy.

Coconut milk’s environmental impact is low. Research shows it produces less than half the carbon footprint of soy milk while growing in healthy, wet tropical regions.

A couple of things to consider are where the coconuts come from and if climate change has affected those regions.

Knowing where coconuts come from will give you a better idea of the distance and transportation footprint used in the production. Secondly, since most coconuts are produced in Indonesia, Philippines, and India, locations affected by climate change, this too can have a direct effect on coconut production.

Nutrition:

  • High-calorie, high-fat (high saturated fat)
  • Low protein (< 1g per 8oz.)
  • High potassium, fiber, and iron
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Oatly oat milk

Oat Milk

Oat milk has taken a popular liking to coffee lovers for its thick, creamy texture and various nutrients. It is also notably a nut and seed allergy friendly drink.

Environmentally, oat milk is considerably safe. It ranks low in land use and emissions when compared to soy, almond, and dairy. Although it uses twice the amount of water as soy, it uses significantly less water than almond and dairy milk. 

Nutrition:

  • High carb with naturally occurring sugars 
  • Contains iron, vitamin E, and folic acid
  • Offers protein (4g per 8 oz)
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Clearly, the choices for plant-based milk are broad, and it is up to each consumer to consider what impact they want to make on the environment and on their own body. Whichever milk you choose, we just hope you pour it in AFTER your cereal. 

Erika Lorenzo
Erika Lorenzo

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