Let’s Face It, Cow Milk Is No Longer In Vogue.
In the last decade or so, there has been a massive increase in demand for dairy substitutes, and at this point, every coffee shop seems to have several options to choose from. Not only are there more choices than ever before, but frankly, the quality of these products and taste has even won over some of the most hardened dairy drinkers. While all these emerging plant-based milks are gaining traction, the big question is, are they better for our planet, and if so, which is the most eco-friendly option?
The Issues with Cow Milk
Before we talk about alternative milks, we need to address the elephant in the room, dairy production. I’ll make this short and sweet, alternative milks are simply better for our environment as dairy farming has a massive impact on our world. From greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous runoff to water usage and overruling abundant land, dairy is riddled with concerns. The inherent process of dairy farming has environmental implications that simply cannot be avoided. If you are drinking milk, try to find a company that is transparent about their business practices and interest in minimizing their environmental impact.
Almond milk has remained a dominant player in the coffee world for the last decade or so. Since almonds grow on trees, the biggest environmental impact of this milk comes in the form of water usage. All nut milks require an abundance of water to grow which takes from other sectors and the broader community. Additionally, the lion’s share of almonds are grown in the state of California where water is an especially scarce resource and droughts are never-ending.
Almonds themselves are filled with valuable nutrients that, when consumed raw, may warrant their excessive water usage. However, when turning these raw almonds into milk, most of those nutrients are lost in the process. While almond milk has relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and land use, it’s abundant water usage and nutrient waste makes it less eco-friendly than other options on this list.
Don't worry. You can still find almond milks that are more environmentally sustainable than others. Look for companies that use organic almonds and are vocal about only supporting farms with regenerative agriculture practices.
Soy milk is the OG alternative milk that gained traction during the second wave of coffee. Many enjoy the taste of soy milk and its nutrient composition because it is more similar to dairy than other plant-based milks. While soybeans require far less water than almonds, the main downside comes from the massive amounts of land needed to cultivate the crop. The demand for soy, along with the requirements for cultivating, has even led to deforestation in certain parts of the world.
The farming techniques used to maximize yield and profitability also have serious environmental consequences. With the fertilizers and herbicides used by many farmers, the surrounding communities and workers are put at risk. In theory, soy should be a very sustainable alternative to milk, but some of these practices have major environmental consequences. If you do decide to drink soy milk, do a little research and try to find one that is made with non-GMO or organic soybeans grown here in the U.S. If you can do this, soy milk is a pretty good option.
Oat milk is literally flying off the shelves these days. While it has been a staple in Scandinavian countries for decades, oat milk has recently taken off like wildfire in the U.S. At many coffee shops, this is the top-selling alternative milk. Not only can oat milk be a creamy and delicious alternative milk for espresso-based drinks like lattes, but it’s actually one of the better options for our environment.
Oats generally need very little land and water for cultivation. While its nutrient profile falls behind soy milk, oat milk is generally more nutritious than almond milk. Just like anything, it’s important to make sure you do a little homework to ensure the brand you are buying uses either organic oats or oats that are not treated with harmful herbicides. If you’re buying the largest and most popular oat milk brand in the U.S., you are good on that front!
What Alternative Milk is Best?
Hopefully now you will think twice about the milk in your morning coffee, cold brew or afternoon cappuccino. While taste preference should play a major role in your decision, understanding the environmental impact might make one milk start to taste just that much better in your gourmet coffee. While we can make generalizations like oat milk is better for our environment than almond, at the end of the day, it is largely dependent on the steps each company takes to do better for our environment. Take a moment, do some research and start thinking a little bit more about your coffee’s environmental impact!