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Dr. Tori Hudson, Portland, Oregon, Blog Healthline Blog

My first thought is:  Am I confused/Are you confused about milk products- whether cow/dairy/sheep/plants?  And the answer is… Yes.

I read a fascinating piece in The Guardian the other day, “So what milk should we drink”?  I want to give you the cliff notes on that… and then maybe some cliff notes on the environmental impacts of plant milks, and them some nutritional insights on cow dairy.

First off, in terms of environmental impact, cow’s milk is kind of a disaster, producing almost three times more greenhouse gas than any plant-based milk. But, some of the plant-based milks have environmental issues as well.

Almond milk: Almond milk is not healthy for the plant.  Almonds require more water than other dairy alternatives, consuming 130 pints of water to make a single glass of almond milk.  This massive commercial success of almond milk has also placed a lot of stress on bees.  Nearly 70% of commercial bees in the US are drafted in the spring to pollinate almonds, and last year, over one third of them died as a result of these high demands as well as other environmental threats to their survival.

Rice milk: There is very little nutritional or environmental benefits to rice milk.  Plus, it hogs water, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than other plant milks.  Turns out the bacteria breeding in rice paddies pump methane into our atmosphere, plus the large amounts of fertilizer pollute surrounding waterways.

Hazelnut milk: Hazelnuts grow on trees like all nuts, and as such, they pull carbon from our atmosphere and help to reduce greenhouse emissions rather than increase them.  Hazelnuts are pollinated by the wind, rather than the commercial honeybees, so that is more environmentally friendly.  In addition, hazelnuts grown in damper climates, such as my neck of the woods, the Pacific NW and west of the Cascade mountains and thus they need less artificial watering— we’ve usually got plenty of rain.

Coconut milk:  Coconut trees grow in tropical climates and the pressure to meet the commercial demand is causing problems for the workers and the rainforests that are destroyed to grow the coconut trees.  In the poor regions of the Philippines, Indonesia and India, pickers are often paid less than one dollar daily.  And oh, so sadly, rainforests are clear-cut to make way for coconut palm trees.  In one report, between 2007 and 2014, this clear-cut happened at the rate of three acres every minute in Indonesia.  There are coconut products that are certified Fair Trade… But do your homework on not just wages, but rain forest impact.

Soymilk: The primary down-side of soymilk is that soybeans are grown in huge quantities around the world- mostly to feed livestock.  It is subject to monoculture farming, and unfortunately, large tracts of Amazon rainforest have been burned to grow soybeans (and to raise cattle).  It is also a food the is largely genetically modified and non-organic— however, there is plenty of non-GMO and organic soymilk in the U.S. and Canada.  Soymilk is very nutritious milk alternative- and the only plant-based milk with similar protein content to cow dairy milk.  It is also well known for it’s monounsaturated fats.  And…. Safe.  Soy does not contain estrogen, does not increase blood levels of estrogen, does not cause breast or any cancer and does not cause thyroid disease.  There is plenty of very up to date research to confirm these safety findings.

Hemp milk:  One advantage of hemp milk is that it is a niche entity, so it tends to be grown in smaller quantities and thus not a part of the monoculture operations.  Hemp milk not only tastes great (well… with vanilla added perhaps) but is rich in protein and healthy fats.

Oat milk:  According to the Good Food Institute, “oat milk performs very well on all sustainability metrics.”  There is also not a predicted negative environmental impact and good news, the retail sales of oat milk in the U.S. surpassed almond milk sales.  At current levels of production, 50-90% of the oat production goes into animal feed, but there is plenty of existing land on those farms to produce oats for oat milk so that more land will not have to be acquired to meet the demands.  Oats are also grown in cooler climates such as the northern US and Canada, and as a result, are not associated with deforestation, or over-use of water supplies.  There is one drawback in that oats are mass-produced in monoculture operations and sprayed with Roundup pesticides (containing glyphosate, a possible carcinogen) before harvesting.  Look for organic and glyphosate free oat milk brands.


Cow dairy milk: The environmental impacts of dairy are significant and the impact on the environment is about 5-10 times greater than plant-based protein sources.  One issue is that dairy farms consume more water than growing the plant-based milks.  The fertilizer and manure can also contribute to water pollution. In addition, large dairies may depend on antibiotics to keep the cows’ health and that can contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.  Dairy farms also account for approximately 2% of the total US greenhouse gas emissions.  But dairy farmers are listening and paying attention.  Over the course of 10 years, a gallon of milk used 30% less water, 21% less land, had 19% smaller carbon footprint and used 20% less manure in 2017 compared to 2007.


My ratings for the combination of friendliest environmental impact considerations AND nutritional benefits:

  1. Hemp milk
  2. Soymilk

Lowest ratings:  Cow milk, almond milk, coconut milk

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