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  • Writer's pictureYimin Xu

The best non-dairy milk? Simple, helpful truths you need to know

Today, non-dairy milk is not only very popular in coffee shops and restaurants, but also at home in our everyday cooking. People choose non-dairy milk for a variety of reasons, such as better health, reducing the consumption of animal products, and protecting the environment. However, there is still a lot of confusion about the nutritional and environmental benefits of the different non-dairy milks:

Is non-dairy milk “processed”?

Does non-dairy milk lack calcium?

Is non-dairy milk good for my health?

Which non-dairy milk is best for the environment?

In this article, we will examine these questions for each of the most popular non-dairy milks: almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, and rice milk.

What is non-dairy or plant-based milk?

Non-dairy milk is an extract of nuts, legumes, and cereals, but diluted in water. The most popular options in supermarkets and cafes today are almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, and rice milk. While sharing many of the culinary uses as cow’s milk, non-dairy alternatives do not contain lactose. This is especially important given that 65-75% of the world’s population are lactose intolerant (you can read our previous article on milk here).

In 2017, the European Court of Justice banned the use of “milk”, “butter”, cheese”, or “yoghurt” for purely plant-based products. These terms are reserved by the EU law for animal products only, which is why in European supermarkets, non-dairy milk is labelled as a “plant-based drink”[1]. The global milk substitute market today is bigger than meat alternatives[2].

How is non-dairy milk made?

Commercial production of non-dairy milk involves combining the cereal or blending the nuts and legumes with water, milling the mixture, and filtering out the solids. Oils such as rapeseed oil are added for both texture and non-saturated fats like omega-3. The non-dairy liquid is then heat-treated for sanitation and shelf-life. Often, non-dairy milk is fortified with calcium, vitamin D, Riboflavin (B2), and B12. Most of the non-dairy milk in supermarkets shares a similar amount of calcium (120mg per 100ml) as cow’s milk.

Almond milk

While it seems a fairly recent trend, almond milk was actually already widely used as a dairy alternative in Europe and the Middle East since the 1200s. Fascinatingly, almond milk was recommended as a cough treatment in The Golden Treatise from 800 AD[3]. Typically, only 1-2% of the almond milk is almond. This low concentration means the calories in almond milk are also very low (15kcal per 100ml), compared with both cow’s milk and other non-dairy milks. Almond milk has slightly less protein than cow’s milk but is also very low in saturated fat and natural sugar. Almond milk is typically fortified with a similar amount of calcium as cow’s milk, as well as plenty of Vitamin D, Riboflavin, and Vitamin B12.

The main criticisms towards almonds are regarding their intense water usage and the impact of almond farming on the bees. It is claimed that growing almonds intensifies the drought in California, creating a negative impact on the local biodiversity. However, a closer look reveals that animal feed by far requires the most water footprints in California[4]. Comparatively, California produces about 80% of the global almond supply but only a fraction of the global meat and dairy. A single litre of almond milk requires 371 litres of water to produce. Meanwhile, a litre of cow’s milk requires 628 litres of water. Nonetheless, it is true that rice milk, oat milk, and soya milk are lower in terms of water usage in their production.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, almond milk is the closest to being carbon neutral among both non-dairy milk and cow’s milk. Almond orchards capture and store a significant amount of carbon[5]. In contrast, cow’s milk produces 4 times the amount of CO2 equivalent compared to almonds, and beef is nearly 29 times worse.

However, The Guardian reports that a huge number of bees die on almond farms each year while pollinating the almonds. This figure reached 50 billion in 2018-19 alone[6], representing over one-third of the commercial US bee colonies. The tragedy stems from the use of pesticides that are lethal to bees as well as the intensely demanding nature of the industrial agricultural methods of almonds.

Soy milk

Nutritionally, soy milk is fantastic because it contains nearly as much protein and calcium as cow’s milk, but only a fraction of the saturated fats and sugars. It is low in calories (33 kcal per 100ml) and a great source of iron. Soy milk is commonly regarded as a fantastic replacement of cow’s milk in cooking, baking, and coffee.

The most common health-related misconception about soy is that it “raises estrogen levels”. However, comprehensive studies have shown that there is no association between the consumption of soy foods and estrogen levels in the human body. Soy foods have powerful, beneficial effects on our health, reducing heart disease and many forms of cancer[7].

Environmentally, the main criticism towards soy is its link to deforestation, especially in Brazil. The area used to grow soy in Brazil since 1980 has tripled, while cropland (including commercial soy) accounts for 9% of the agro-industrial clearing in the Brazilian Amazon.

However, Our World In Data highlights that the increase in soy production in the past 30 years is predominantly driven by the increased demand for animal feed, biofuels, and vegetable oil. 77% of global soy is actually fed to livestock for meat and dairy. Poultry and pigs represent the highest demand for soy as animal feed. Only 7% of soy is used directly for human consumption such as tofu, soy milk, and edamame beans[8].

Furthermore, agro-industrial clearing for pasture for beef production is by far the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, accounting for 63% of the total loss area[9]. Since 2008, there has been an Amazon Soy Moratorium (ASM) under which the major soy traders “agreed to avoid the purchase of soybeans from areas that were deforested after 2008.[10]

Among the non-dairy milks in this article, the production of soy milk requires the least amount of water usage at 28 litres of water per litre of soy milk (only 4% of what cow’s milk requires). It emits 1 kg CO2eq, higher than almond, oat, and rice milks, but still only one-third of the emissions from the production of cow’s milk.

Oat milk

As a cereal-based drink, oat milk is similar to cow’s milk in calories, but with very little saturated fats. Oat milk has a naturally sweet taste as it has a similar level of natural sugar as cow’s milk. Oat milk is free of soy, nuts, and lactose. Studies show that consumption of oat milk can lower LDL cholesterol[11]. As oat milk is fortified with vitamin D and calcium, it is also beneficial to our bone health.

Oat milk is very environmentally friendly in terms of both water usage and carbon emissions. The production of oat milk releases less greenhouse gas than soy and rice milk, and only slightly more than almond. The production of oat milk also requires far less water than both almond and rice milk, while similar to soy.

Rice milk

Rice milk has a similar calorie profile as oat milk, but with less protein and saturated fats. It is richer in complex carbohydrates. Like oat milk, it is free of soy, nuts, and lactose.

Environmentally, the production of rice milk emits slightly more greenhouse than almond, soy, and oat milk, but that is still just one-third of the emissions from cow’s milk. Production of rice milk requires less water than cow’s milk and almond milk, but not quite as good as oat and soy milk.

What’s your verdict?

My personal best pick is oat milk, and I use it both in my coffees and in cooking. For example, I blend oat milk with cashew nuts, soft tofu, and nutritional yeast to make a creamy plant-based carbonara sauce.

Want to track the nutrition AND emissions of the food on your plate?

Wouldn’t it be ideal to know exactly how the food we eat simultaneously affects our body and the environment? This is why we have created Plantwise. Our app helps you visualise both the exact nutrients of your food, the water usage of its production, and its CO2 emissions. Sign up for our Apple App Store launch at the bottom of this page or on our homepage today for free!

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