Milk alternatives offer easy sustainability switch

Milk alternatives offer easy sustainability switch
Senior environmental studies and journalism double major Ana McCabe.

To live a sustainable life is to make daily environmentally conscious decisions and purchases that best fit one’s lifestyle. Small changes can create a significant impact on society’s environmental footprint.

One easy way to incorporate sustainability into everyday choices is through food. There are many alternative dietary options that provide similar nutrient benefits and satisfaction with less environmental impact.

Finding alternative milk options is one small dietary switch gaining popularity in the U.S. Studies show dairy milk has the highest production impact by far on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and freshwater use.

According to an article by Morning Consult, a business intelligence company, 82% of people who drink alternative milks do so because they like the taste, while 56% do so because of environmental concerns.

Factors such as nutritional content, land and water usage, and chemicals used all play a part in the sustainability of different milk alternatives.

Almond milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives, partly due to the nutty taste and high nutrient content. Almond milk provides an abundance of essential vitamins including magnesium, vitamin E and calcium.

Sustainability-wise, almond milk gives off the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to other milk options. However, large quantities of water are required to grow almonds and produce almond milk.

In an article for The Beet, Cameron Alvar writes that “it takes 130 pints of water to produce a single glass of almond milk. About 80% of the almonds used for milk in the U.S. are grown in California, but the hot climate [and] the water consumption of the almonds creates a lot of stress on the dry, arid land, especially during heatwaves and fires that are persistently devastating California.”

While the overall environmental footprint of almond milk is still less than cow milk, the use of water is an important factor to consider.

Oat milk is another popular milk alternative. High in B vitamins and fortified with calcium and vitamin D, oat milk has a consistency and taste similar to that of dairy. The creamy texture makes it a great supplement in coffee and cereal.

The sustainability of oat milk offers another benefit of this dairy alternative. According to Alvar, oats are a low-input crop that create crop diversity and reduce soil erosion when grown in rotation. They also help lower the risk of plant diseases.

Oat milk ranks well among other milk alternatives when it comes to water use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, oats take up a significant amount of land and rely on more chemical pesticides and fertilizers compared to other milk alternatives.

Soy milk, another alternative, is high in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids and potassium, which helps maintain lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Unlike other milk alternatives, soy milk is similar to dairy milk in that it is naturally high in protein and has a silky texture.

When it comes to the environmental impacts, soy milk produces similar amounts of greenhouse gas emissions as almond and oat but uses significantly less water than almond milk.

As a legume, soy fixes nitrogen in the soil, leading to less reliance on fertilizers. However, according to a FoodPrint article by Lisa Elaine Held, soy uses much more land compared to other milk substitutes.

“We’re growing so much soy these days, in fact, that parts of the Amazon are being destroyed to plant it,” Held writes. “Plus, in the U.S. especially, the vast majority of soybeans are grown in monocropped systems, and while they might not require as much nitrogen fertilizer, they do use phosphorus fertilizers, which are also connected to runoff that creates dead zones.”

There are benefits and drawbacks for each alternative milk option. Even companies that produce the same type of non-dairy milk vary in sustainability.

When deciding on a more environmentally-friendly option, consider what fits your needs while also remembering environmental health. If you pick the milk that best fits your budget and your happiness while still keeping in mind the environmental benefits and drawbacks, you are succeeding at sustainability.