For the sake of the environment, health, or simply because it’s trendy, many people are reaching for nondairy milk these days. The trouble is, when you scan a store shelf or cooler and see soy milk, macadamia milk, oat milk, pea milk and more, it can be hard to know which alternative to dairy milk is the best choice for you.
To help sort through the sea of alt-milk facts, we spoke to some environmental and nutrition experts, who shared some details that will make your decision a bit easier. We got the scoop on nutrition content, as well as important environmental factors to consider, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use, where a crop is grown, transportation and how crops are processed.
Here’s what you need to know when choosing a dairy milk alternative:
Among the dairy alternatives, oat milk is a pretty climate-friendly choice with fairly low water use, land use and greenhouse gas emissions, said Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns in the health and food division at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
A life cycle analysis of oat milk conducted by popular Swedish brand Oatly says land use and greenhouse gas emissions for oat milk are about 80% lower than for cow’s milk. But keep in mind that this comes from the oat milk company itself — there isn’t much independent research available on this topic right now.
As for nutrition, registered dietitian Taylor Wolfram told HuffPost that oat milk is lower in fat and protein and higher in carbohydrates than other alternatives. It also has a neutral flavor and creamy consistency, making it a popular choice in cafés. Overall, nutritionists say oat milk is a good option, especially for people with soy and nut allergies.
There’s a lot of buzz around the amount of water that goes into farming almonds, and that’s a valid concern — almond milk takes a lot of water to produce.
But results from a recent life cycle assessment of California unsweetened almond milk show that dairy milk in the U.S. has more than four times the global warming potential as California almond milk and uses nearly twice as much water. Additionally, the results show that almond milk’s global warming potential is similar to that of many other dairy alternatives, but its water use is higher ― though the researchers note it’s tough to compare studies of these different products side by side.
“In the data that I looked at, no plant-based milk is equal to the water usage of dairy milk,” Bergen explained.
The problem with almond milk is that most of it is produced in California, where drought potential is high. “Because 90% of almonds are grown in California where water is scarce, it causes more environmental stress than other nut trees that can be grown in other places,” Bergen said. “So, in addition to just the overall amount of water that a crop uses, you also want to consider whether the crop is being grown where water is scarce or not.”
From a nutrition standpoint, almond milk is a good option in many cases. “There is nothing about almond milk that sends any red flags from a health perspective,” Wolfram said, but this definitely isn’t the right choice for someone with an allergy to tree nuts or almonds.
Almond milk is low in calories, fat and protein, the consistency is thin, and the taste is fairly light and neutral, making it a good choice for mixing into smoothies. Wolfram suggests choosing a variety that’s fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.
Environmentally, coconut milk is a pretty good choice — coconut farming has a fairly low impact on the land, and water use is relatively low. “You don’t have to deforest trees to produce the milk,” Bergen said. “And trees themselves have great greenhouse gas benefits.”
However, most coconuts are grown in Indonesia, the Philippines, India and other wet tropical regions, and require a great deal of transportation to reach North America. Likewise, increasing storms driven by climate change can damage trees and impact yield, and many farmers do not earn enough money to support themselves and their families.
Nutritionally, coconut milk isn’t ideal when compared to many other milk alternatives because it’s high in saturated fat, explained registered dietitian Julieanna Hever. There’s some debate over whether saturated fat from plant sources — like coconuts — is less harmful to the body than saturated fats from animal products, but Hever recommends reducing consumption of saturated fats overall. “It can be included in a healthy diet, but should be limited,” she said.
If you’re looking to lower the water footprint of the products you consume, macadamia milk can be a good alternative to almond milk. It’s still a nut milk, but macadamias are typically grown in less water-scarce regions, Bergen explained. That said, as water shortages and other climate-related problems intensify for Australia, Hawaii and other common macadamia nut-producing regions, this could change.
Nutritionally, macadamia milk is an acceptable alternative to dairy for many people, Hever said. It’s typically low in calories, but the fat content is higher than some other nondairy milk alternatives, so you’ll want to keep an eye on that. Like other nut milks, this isn’t a good option for people with nut allergies.
Soy milk can be a great alternative to dairy milk, but you’ll want to pay attention to where it comes from, as some soybeans drive deforestation in the Amazon while also displacing indigenous peoples and small farmers.
There are other issues to consider, too — some soybeans are genetically modified to withstand pesticides. Soy milk also encourages monoculture, Bergen said, which has negative effects on soil and the climate. She recommends organic soy milk as the best option.
From a nutritional perspective, soy milk contains around six or seven grams of protein per serving (comparable to cow’s milk) and is less processed than many other nondairy milks. The key is to look for unsweetened varieties, said registered dietitian Amanda Baker Lemein.
Producing pea milk uses far less water than dairy milk and many dairy milk alternatives, Bergen said, and the greenhouse gas emissions are lower as well. As a nitrogen-fixing plant, peas don’t require much nitrogen fertilizer ― another plus for the environment. A life cycle assessment of Ripple pea milk (funded by the company) says the product contributes just 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions of dairy milk. There’s not much information on the environmental sustainability of pea milk from independent researchers.
Nutritionally, unsweetened pea milk is low in calories, high in protein and contains little or no saturated fat, making it a solid nondairy alternative. It usually has added oil and is fortified with vitamin B12 and other vitamins and minerals. But watch out for added sugars. “Once you get into flavors or sweeteners, then it changes how ‘healthy’ it is,” said registered dietitian Jill Nussinow.
How To Make Your Choice
From a nutrition standpoint, plant-based milks are fine to include in your diet, but it’s important to read the labels so you know exactly what you’re getting, and to choose unsweetened and fortified options when you can.
Climate impact is where things get a bit more complicated, as an alt-milk’s sustainability can vary depending on a lot of factors. But Bergen pointed out that any plant milk is going to be a better choice for the climate than dairy milk.
“I think the take-home message is that if people want to reduce the environmental impact of the milk that they’re consuming, then switching to plant-based alternatives as much as possible is a great option,” Bergen said.