Once upon a time, milk was simply milk. But now it seems every time we go to the cafe or the grocery store, a new alternative ‘milk’ variety has been unearthed. From old school cow’s milk and soy milk, right through to more recent innovations like rice milk and a galaxy of nut milks, we’re completely spoiled for choice.
When it comes to making informed nutritional choices, a little bit of research goes a long way. But when it comes to milk, it’s not just nutrition at stake – from farm to carton, what is the environmental impact of your milk of choice?
We’re going to dig into the nutritional value and environmental footprint of six popular milk varieties. Which one will come out on top? Ultimately, that’s for you to decide.
The nutritional information provided below is a guide only, as nutrients can differ from brand to brand. Many commercial plant-based milk options are now fortified to provide a similar amount of calcium to dairy milk (around 100-125mg per half cup.) For the most accurate information, be sure to read the nutrition label on your milk carton or bottle.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, a word from Advanced Sports Dietician Lisa Middleton: “Not all milks are created equal. Whichever milk you choose needs to work with any dietary requirements you may have. Consider your tolerance of gluten and nuts when looking at plant-based milks, and always read the nutritional information on your milk’s packaging.”
Historians say humans have been drinking cow’s milk for around 10,000 years and our digestive systems actually had to evolve so that we could stomach the stuff. But its longevity isn’t just thanks to its taste – dairy milk ticks a lot of nutritional boxes, according to Advanced Sports Dietician Lisa Middelton. “It’s an excellent source of high-quality protein, carbs (mainly in the form of lactose – of course, lactose-free varieties are available for those who are lactose intolerant), vitamin B12 and easily absorbable calcium.” No wonder dairy milk has been a staple of our diets for so long and is probably the most popular milk on this list.
However, more recently researchers have discovered that the environmental impacts of dairy farming are pretty dire – producing a single glass of cow’s milk emits three times the amount of greenhouse gas, and requires nine times the amount of land than any mainstream plant-based milk.
Almond milk has stormed the milk charts in recent years, with California’s almond industry (where 80% of American almonds are grown) worth somewhere in the vicinity of $6 billion. But does almond milk offer much in the way of nutritional value? Short answer: not really.
Lisa says: “Unsweetened versions are generally low calorie and low sugar, and in its natural form, there’s no protein in almond milk. However, because the store-bought stuff is mostly fortified (which means they add nutrients to the raw milk), you will still get some nutritional value from your daily glass.”
As for the environmental side of things, that may be almond milk’s downfall.
Reports indicate that almond farming may place a massive strain on the USA’s commercial bee population
Almonds have been in the firing line during California’s drought in the past decade, and a report earlier this year found that industrialized almond farming has placed an unprecedented strain on the USA’s commercial bee industry, and without bees, we would be in big trouble.
While it is a tasty, creamy treat, coconut milk is not a great option nutritionally speaking. It’s pretty high in saturated fat and calories and offers very little protein. You will get a nice hit of magnesium, vitamin C and iron – but as you should with any milk, check the nutritional information on the packaging.
The good news is that farming coconuts has a fairly low environmental impact. Coconut trees are mostly grown in tropical areas with high rainfall, so farms don’t use much water. And the trees themselves are great at storing Carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere – win!
However, it is worth checking where your coconuts are coming from – if you don’t live in a tropical climate, there’s a good chance your coco latte has quite a few carbon miles attached to it. The other consideration is HOW coconuts are farmed – the industry doesn’t have a great track record in terms of paying farmers what they deserve, so go with a Fair Trade certified option if you can.
Before almond milk strutted onto the scene, soy milk was the preferred plant-based alternative to dairy thanks to its similar levels of protein, fats and carbs. When brands fortify their soy milk product, you get almost the same level of calcium, too.
"There is an ongoing debate over the impact of soy products on hormones,” cautions Lisa. “I generally recommend that people don’t overdo soy products, but for those who eat vegetarian or vegan, soy products do provide high-quality protein."
Lactose intolerant? As soy milk is plant-based, you’re in the clear. And like any milk alternative, it’s always better to go with an unsweetened variety.
The United States and Brazil produce most of the world’s soy. If you’re based elsewhere in the world, try to source soy milk made with a locally-grown crop to reduce the carbon footprint of your brew.
Of all the plant-based milk crew, rice milk is the least likely to cause allergies (always check with your doctor if you’re unsure.) “It is a great base for protein powders because while it lacks any protein of its own, the carbohydrates in rice milk are high GI and perfect for recovery smoothies,” says Lisa.
Any other nutrients present in your rice milk have come from the fortification process – so read the label.
Rice is a thirsty crop to grow, so it’s good to buy rice milk that is made using rice from a region with high rainfall where possible. Don’t forget to factor in those carbon miles, too.
Despite oats being one of the higher protein grains, oat milk doesn’t offer much protein. But fortified oat milk is a rich source of nutrients. It has more calories, carbs, and fiber than almond, soy and cow’s milk, but less protein than soy and dairy milk (check your labels, people.) Many oat milks are sweetened or flavored, making them high in sugar, so keep an eye out for that.
In the environmental column, oat milk gets a tick! Oat production produces relatively few greenhouse gasses, and mostly takes place in the cooler climates of northern parts of the US and in Canada. Of course, the same rules as normal apply – investigate the source, consider the carbon miles.
So there you have it! Clear as milk, right? The key takeaway here is the same as it is with just about every food choice you make – there is no magic formula. Your nutritional choices need to be made within the context of your diet and your body’s requirements. Many Centr recipes call for the use of different milks, sometimes based on taste as well as nutritional value. But if the milk we recommend isn’t for you, get your swap on! Just remember to swap like for like – aim to recreate the nutritional content of the original milk with the substitute you’ve swapped it for.
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