SANTA FE, N.M. — I have noticed in recent years that more grocery shelf space has been devoted to milk alternatives than to dairy milk. That includes not just soy and almond milk, but also oat milk, hemp milk, pea milk, cashew, hazelnut and flax milk, and rice milk, as well as coconut milk.
This is a clear market trend. Americans are drinking 37% less dairy (cow) milk than they did in the 1970s and alternatives are fighting for their market share. Much of this shift is driven by climate change. According to a University of Oxford study, producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions than non-dairy milk. It also uses far more water and land. But it isn’t that simple.
Many consumers want to be eco-conscious, but not all plant-based milks are created equal. Consider the popular almond, hazelnut and coconut milks. They all grow on trees that absorb carbon, but their impacts are vastly different.
Most almonds are grown in industrial low water monoculture environments in California’s central valley. I recently drove through miles of them and they looked starkly out of place. They require enormous amounts of water. In comparing nut milks, Conversation.com reports that one kernel of California almond requires 12 liters of irrigated water. Annette McGivney, writing for the Guardian, reports, “Nearly 70% of commercial bees in the U.S. are drafted each spring to pollinate almonds. Last year, a record number – over one third of them – had died by season’s end.”
The culprit appears to be pesticides, such as glyphosate. Coconut trees use less water, but grow in tropical areas where increasing demand means tropical forests are destroyed for coconut production.
“Coconut is an absolute tragedy …,” states Isaac Emery, a food sustainability consultant. “I love cooking with coconut milk, but I don’t feel good about buying coconut products.”
Hazelnut milk, the Guardian concludes, is better for the environment as trees are cross-pollinated, so bees are not at risk, and they tend to grow in areas with more rainfall and in less intensive operations.
Then there are legume-based milks, such as protein-rich soy milk, which has been a global favorite for thousands of years. Legumes are nitrogen fixers, so can improve soil and do not use a lot of water or require a lot of land. However, consider that half a million acres of Brazilian rainforest have been lost to soy production.
Some grain-based alternatives are also popular, but questionable.
Rice milk uses lots of water and may have high arsenic levels. Conversation.com also points out that rice production generates high greenhouse gas emissions due to the methane-producing bacteria that develops in rice paddies. Rice production also uses a lot of fertilizer.
Then there is oat milk. In terms of overall environmental benefit, it may be the winner. But most oats are grown industrially and use glyphosate-based pesticides. However, an organic, healthier and sustainable Swedish brand, Oatly, uses whole oat groats and natural enzymes, and does not filter out the heart-healthy beta glucan that some over-processed companies discard.
In reality, it is hard to analyze the environmental effect of these different milk alternatives. The literature is limited. Many of the current studies are industrially funded and do not consider each stage of production, or other factors, such as how much waste is produced. And each company has different production processes, some of which are proprietary.
And wait just a minute, says the dairy industry. Milklife.com emphasizes that dairy milk contains eight times more protein than alternatives such as rice milk and almond milk, which have little naturally occurring calcium, Vitamin A and D. There are no additives in milk. None are needed, they stress.
“Unlike plant-based alternatives, you always know what you’ll get when you grab a glass of real milk,” they say.
In contrast, they say, most plant alternatives are filled with additives, “including salt and sugar, stabilizers and emulsifiers, such as locust bean gum, sunflower lecithin and gellam gum.”
The Business Insider says the money may be on oat milk. Oatly recently got a $2 billion valuation and investments from the Blackstone Group, as well as from such individuals as Oprah Winfrey. I tried oat milk. It is a bit grey-looking, but has a rich, milky taste.
I was recently at a California restaurant and asked about dessert. “Oh,” I was told, “we have a great flourless chocolate cake made with olive oil instead of butter paired with a gelato made with oat milk.”
I passed on dessert. I wasn’t ready.
Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reached at email@example.com