by Madison Cavallaro
Cow's milk has always been a staple in the American diet. It wasn't so long ago when Got Milk commercials were airing on every network emphasizing the importance of drinking milk. Whether or not we want to confront the motivations of said commercials, it is common knowledge that you don't need to drink milk every day. What you do need is adequate calcium.
Compared to the typical carton of cow's milk, plant-based milks have more calcium, are lower in sugar, free from added hormones, and are easier to digest (1). Calcium is vital in our bodies for lowering blood pressure, preventing osteoporosis, and aiding the nervous system. Not to mention, high-fat milk products are known to be acidic and worsen acid reflux symptoms (2). Lactose, a natural sugar found in cow's milk, is known to cause allergies, stomach discomfort, and digestive problems (1).
It is clear plant-based milk is better for health, but it is also better for the environment. After reading this guide for plant-based milk, you will want to run, not walk, to your nearest bodega.
The Chinese were the first to cultivate the wild soybean (circa 3,000 years ago). Soy comes in many forms like tofu, miso, and other staples. Soy milk became popular outside of the Asian-American community when the U.S. began promoting its health benefits in the 1990s. It's important to mention that BIPOC have enjoyed soy for centuries. We must recognize BIPOC communities' roles in soy alternatives for vegans and vegetarians (3).
Soy milk has a great taste and is arguably the closest to cow's milk, based on the nutrition profile. Soy is an excellent alternative if someone is lactose intolerant and avoids dairy for their allergy (4). Even so, soy is one of the eight most common allergies, so it is not the best choice for all.
According to a recent Oxford study, soy milk is a "top-tier" of all plant milk when it comes to sustainability. But to purchase consciously, it's best to look for organic and made in the U.S. or Canada. Soybeans are typically produced in massive quantities in South America, leading to rainforest deforestation. Buying more locally lessens the global demand (6).
Almond milk had a hold on the plant-based milk market for quite some time. Their quick drop-off was most likely due to their environmental impact. Almonds require more water than any other dairy alternative, and farming in the U.S. is concentrated almost entirely in California. The high demand for almonds and extensive water use puts pressure on the surrounding ecosystems, especially pollinating bees (6).
Of all milk alternatives, almond milk has virtually no sugar (unless brands add it) and significantly less fat and calories than cow's milk. It also has higher amounts of calcium and vitamin D, suggesting that it is a healthy option for most. If you are looking for protein from milk, almond is not the one, but if you're looking for a healthy substitute to use in your coffee a few times a week, this is a good option (5).
Cashews have also gained popularity as a dairy alternative because of their versatility in savory flavor. Cashew milks and yogurts have taken off as well. Cashew milk is lower in calories and is a great option if you are looking for a nut milk and don't particularly like the almond flavor. Cashews are rich in healthy fats, but store-bought milks only contain about 2 grams of fat. Similar to almond milk, brands will fortify milk with vitamins and minerals to increase the nutrition profile.
Like almonds, there are still environmental concerns with land and water usage. The only difference is cashew shells contain a natural toxin and can cause burning and scarring of the people who pick the nuts. Buying fair trade cashew milk will ensure to a certain degree that the working conditions to produce the milk were not poor (8).
Because coconut trees only grow in tropical climates, there are immense pressures to meet global demands. These high demands destroy rainforests and exploit workers. To support sustainable practices, purchasing coconut products that are certified fair trade is best (6).
Coconut milk is high in fat content, so using it in moderation is most beneficial considering cholesterol. The milk is rich in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin C. It is a delicious additive to soups, smoothies, oatmeal, and more (7).
Hemp is a niche crop, meaning it's grown in small quantities and is more environmentally friendly than typical monoculture farming (6).
Unflavored hemp beverages are high in polyunsaturated fats, which help lower cholesterol. Hemp milk is a good option for those who are monitoring cholesterol. Because of Hemp's chalky texture and taste, store-bought brands may add ingredients to mask this (5). Always read the labels for additives.
Of all the plant-based options, oat milk is highest in calories and carbohydrates. Oat milks are also often produced with additional vitamins and minerals to increase the nutritional value. Although sugars are higher than other alternatives, they are natural and still lower than cow's milk (5).
Oat milk is the most recent alternative to rise in popularity. Oat milk presents no risk to the climate because there is already an abundance of oat production globally due to animal feed. Oats also grow in cooler temperatures and will not lead to deforestation (6).
The bottom line of plant-based milk options is that anything is better than cow's milk. We now know there is no need for cow's milk in the diet. Its production causes severe environmental damage. There are plenty of alternatives, even more than mentioned, that can work for any person's desires from a milk product. All commercially produced milks have some drawbacks. Being a conscious consumer is the best way to support sustainable and fair farming methods. If you want to take it a step further, make these at home.