Plant milk may seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but it’s nothing new. Almond milk was in use in Baghdad as early as the 13th century, and pops up in medieval English recipe books. Soy milk was popular in China from the 14th century on, and the first European soy milk factory opened near Paris in 1910. What is unprecedented is its current ubiquity: fifteen years ago, plant milks were the preserve of specialty health food stores and their lactose-intolerant customers, yet today more than a third of all American households buy plant milk, accounting for 13% of all dairy dollars spent.
The people turning their backs on dairy are motivated by both ethical and health concerns: in addition to well-documented animal welfare issues, the global dairy industry is responsible for 4% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and consumes (by some estimates) more than 1000 gallons of water per gallon of milk it produces. At the same time, milk and other dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the American diet.
Plant milks are hands-down more sustainable than conventional dairy milk: on average, they require 80% less land and at least 50% less water to produce, emitting only one third as much carbon. They win on ethics, too: no oats, soybeans or almonds are separated from their calves or slaughtered once they’re no longer producing milk. But when it comes to nourishment, the story is not quite so simple. From a purely nutritional point of view, cow’s milk is hard to beat. Despite its relatively high proportion of saturated fats, it’s a well-balanced, whole food with plenty of high-quality protein. In comparison, many of the plant-based alternatives on offer in stores are not much more than sugary white water, relying on a long list of gums, stabilizers and oils to make them taste and behave like dairy. To complicate matters further, not all additives are detrimental: if you formerly relied on cow’s milk for your daily calcium and vitamin D intake, you may want to choose a fortified plant milk.
All in all, consumers need plenty of knowledge - and eagle eyes for a nutrition facts label - to make informed choices in the plant milk aisle. We put together this handy primer to help you figure out which dairy alternatives are the best choice for you.
Best for: balanced nutrition
At around 8g per cup, soy milk rivals cow’s milk when it comes to protein. And although its total fat content is similar to 2% milk (usually 4-5g per cup), soy is much lower in the unhealthy, saturated kind. Overall, it’s a well-balanced nutritional option.
The downside: flavor
Soy milk is made from soybeans, and in its natural state it tastes...kind of beany. Adding sugar helps, as do flavors like vanilla - that’s why you’ll find a lot of additives in most supermarket soy milks. Soy is also a known allergen, so it is not suitable for everybody.
Compared to dairy, soy milk creates less than a third of the emissions per gallon and has lower water usage than either dairy or almond milk. The destruction of rainforest to make way for soy plantations is a major environmental concern - but it’s worth noting that 85% of global soy production goes to oil and animal feed (much of it destined for the dairy industry), with only a small proportion used for soy milk.
Best for: flavor, low calories
With its natural, nutty sweetness, almond milk is the go-to partner for breakfast cereals and smoothies for many people - a quick poll at kencko HQ put almond milk way out in front as our favorite smoothie mixer. It’s also lower in calories than soy, dairy and many oat milks.
The downside: what’s inside?
If you check the ingredients of big-brand almond milks, chances are you won’t find many almonds. (Even so, people with tree nut allergies should, obviously, avoid it!) If you want the goodness of natural nuts without the additives, seek out minimally processed options based on just almonds and water - or make your own. Homemade or store-bought, it’s still a relatively low-protein option compared to soy or cow’s milk, and about the same as oat milk.
It’s a point in their favor that almonds create fewer carbon emissions than either oats or soy. However, they are an incredibly thirsty crop: one single California almond (that’s right - one nut) drinks up as much as 3 gallons of water as it grows!
Best for: hot drinks & cooking
When it comes to frothing and steaming, oat milk is a dead ringer for cow’s milk - making it the barista’s choice. It also contains about twice as much fiber as almond milk, including heart-healthy beta-glucans.
The downside: high in natural sugars
The sugar content in unsweetened oat milk is substantially higher than even sweetened almond and soy milks. Although these are naturally occurring sugars, they still give oat milk a glycemic index of around 70 - at least twice as high as soy, almond, or dairy. Protein-wise, it’s on a par with high quality almond milk, but well below soy or dairy.
In terms of emissions, oat milk is in the middle of the plant alternatives: more carbon-intensive than almonds but less than soy. Where it wins out is in water usage. Oats need a tiny fraction of the water used by its mainstream competitors.
Coconut milk: a tasty drink with a low environmental impact. However, the high level of saturated fats will raise a red flag for some people: perhaps best for occasional rather than everyday use.
Rice milk: of all the plant milks, this one has the least environmental upside, although its impact is still lower than dairy. It’s also low in protein, and needs additives to mimic the mouthfeel of “real” milk. On the plus side, it’s the best hypoallergenic option.
Hemp milk: This new kid on the block has more protein than almond milk, and less sugar than oat milk. Like oat milk, it doesn’t separate in hot drinks. But it’s an acquired taste, often described as “earthy” and “chalky” - most people are going to want to choose a flavored/sweetened option.
Pea milk: Another recent addition to the plant milk shelf, pea milk boasts a similar nutritional profile to soy milk, but with a lower environmental impact. Many varieties have added flavors and sweeteners to modify the taste, so check the label if you’re trying to avoid that sort of thing.
Science magazine, 2018: Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers