How Good Is Your Milk Alternative?
In recent years, alternative milks have been on the rise – when you grab your morning coffee from Costa or Starbucks you’ll find three non-dairy options (soya, almond, and coconut, though they cost an extra few pence), and other café chains like Coffee #1 have also begun to offer oat milk. The reason for this surge in popularity is undoubtedly tied up in our increasingly environmental conscience as well as our desire for healthy living, but with this in mind, how much thought do we actually put into our choice of milk alternatives?
In this article then, I will attempt to rank as many vegan milks as I can think of in terms of 1) their health benefits, 2) their environmental impact, and 3) taste.
Almonds, as we all know, are super healthy (unless you eat too many, which will send you to the hospital with cyanide poisoning) – they contain tons of vitamins, minerals, protein, fats and fibres, and have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s; however, much of this is lost in the milk product since almonds number less than 5% of its ingredients, the majority of drinks being made up of sugar and water. Of course, almond milks are fortified with essential nutrients, such as vitamin E, D, and calcium, and are significantly lower in calories than cow’s milk; but if you’re thinking of switching to almond milk for its health benefits, think again.
In terms of its environmental cost, almond milk unfortunately doesn’t fair much better. ‘More than 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California, which has been experiencing its worst drought on record’, reported The Guardian in 2015; though this is not to say that almond milk does more environmental damage than cow’s milk, just that the damage is more concentrated due to most of the crop being grown in the same part of the world. It also takes 5 litres of water to grow 1 almond - pretty bad in terms of water usage.
All of the water involved in the creation of one portion of almond milk then makes for a very watery, thin texture, and depending on the brand of milk you buy, some can be worse than others. From my personal experience, own branded almond milks (I’ve tried Tesco and Aldi’s) are more watery than branded milks like Alpro and Almond Breeze. If you’re going for the sweetened version, you’ll need to have a very sweet tooth, though I find that this sweetness is curbed by its pleasant nutty taste.
Overall rank = 6/10
Oats are a great addition to your diet, especially in the morning if you’re looking for slow-relelasing energy; but unfortunately, as in the case with almond milk, we don’t see many of these natural nutritional benefits carried over into the drink version, due to the product’s heavy dilution with water, meaning oat milks need to be fortified with essential vitamins and minerals.
On the plus side, though, oat milk has the least carbon footprint of all other non-dairy milks – ‘“Oats are mostly grown as a winter cereal and are largely rain get…they [don’t] really suffer from that water contribution scarcity as almonds and rice would, and it also has other benefits like lower CO2 emissions,”’ said Dr Michalis Hadjikakou, Deakin University School of Life and Environmental Sciences, on the subject. Oatly, a popular producer of oat milk, has a strong sustainability message that can be read on the side of its milk packaging, and they always reuse their production waste; they’ve also partnered with local farmers and energy suppliers whom they send their used oat kernels to in order to be used for biogas.
In terms of taste, I would say oat milk is pretty spot on. It’s creamy, not too sweet, and perfect if you aren’t a fan of nuttiness. My personal favourite brand is Oatly, not only for its environmental message, but for the quality of its products, particularly their ‘Barista Edition’ milk which goes great in coffee, both frothed and straight from the carton.
Overall rating = 9/10
This can kind of be lumped in with almond milk as they both share the same issues – their water use. Rice milks as a result are often heavily diluted and can be quite thin in texture; rice is also an extremely water intensive crop, so it isn’t the best in terms of environmental impact. Some rice milks may even be unsafe to drink, as a portion of rice crops have been genetically modified. However, rice milk does have a positive side, as its taste is often thought to be most similar to that of cow’s milk, so could be a good option for those of us starting our transition into the realm of vegan milks.
Overall rating = 5/10
The health benefits or detriments of soy milk have historically been greatly contested – rumours that drinking soy milk regularly led to an increase in oestrogen levels have been widely believed, even by myself, but are actually not grounded in scientific reality, with a recent study arguing “against a physiologically important estrogenic effect." However, there are some potential real dangers of drinking soy milk, though very unlikely; some soy milk products have been found to be contaminated with unsafe GMO soy, with one report suggesting that up to 70% of food products in the US contain a trace of GMO soy. GMO soy has been associated with liver problems and potential organ damage, sterility, infant mortality, and allergic reaction (due to a gene transferred from Brazil nuts to genetically modified soybeans). Alpro explicitly states on its website that their soy products are not GMO contaminated, though, so if you’re looking for a safe option they’re your best bet.
The production of soy also threatens the Amazon rainforest, as deforestation has to occur in order to grow the crop – however, soy milk lovers can rest somewhat easier knowing that the majority of soy imports (90%) are used for animal feed as opposed to vegan milk, so the environmental impact of soy is perhaps something for meat eaters to concern themselves with.
The taste of soy milk on its own, though, is not for everyone, and certainly not for me. It’s sweet, and has a particularly pungent smell that is hard to describe in any other way than ‘a bit farty’. But it pairs well in coffee, tea, or on some cereals.
Overall ranking = 4/10
Again, as is the case with most milk alternatives, coconut milk contains very little actual nutritional value, and as a result has to be fortified with necessary vitamins and minerals. However, it does have some health benefits, as the drink can be useful for weight loss due to its low calorie count, maintenance of heart health, and coconuts are thought to boost the immune system.
The only significant environmental impact that the production of coconut milk has is its transportation, as the crop can only be grown in South East Asia and the Tropics, so customer demand requires it to travel all over the world. On the upside though, coconut production uses only a small amount of water, and coconut trees actually filter out carbon dioxide, so in my opinion, the crop’s environmental benefits outweigh its damage.
The taste is obviously very coconutty, which sometimes can be a bit overpowering depending on the brand. Personally, I like Alpro, however I wouldn’t pour it on my cereal simply because the flavour can obviously clash with many foods – it does go well in coffee or hot chocolate though.
Overall ranking = 8/10