Arguably, one of the most difficult grocery decisions these days is which milk to buy. The litres of dairy we consumed as kids - on cereal, with Milo, as an after-dinner treat - have come under fire and prompted a growing offering of alternatives. There are milks derived from nuts, seeds, oats and more lining the shelves.
In 2007, soy was the primary substitute and held 80% of the non-dairy market. These days, there is fierce competition; by 2019, almond was quickly catching up. In the last four years, alternative milk sales in Australia have grown 48%, and, according to Dairy Australia, 5% of consumers exclusively purchase dairy alternatives (many households still bounce between the two). Why the change? And, importantly, which offering is right for you?
The Movement Away From Dairy
It is much debated, but there is a significant push away from dairy products, with much of the sustainability discourse. We’ve heard it dozens of times before: cows and the cattle industry are harmful to the planet. If cows were their own country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter. (Although, note that many farmers and agriculture experts are exploring ways to reduce these emissions).
Cows release methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide and require significant amounts of land for farming. Nine square metres is needed to produce just one litre of cow’s milk, while plant-based options require less than one square metre.
There is no denying that dairy provides necessary calcium, protein, and potassium levels, but it might be time to explore a little further and minimise the eco-guilt.
Could Soy Milk Be For You?
Soy milk is regarded as the oldest milk variation, dating back hundreds of years in China. This option still dominates the non-dairy market worldwide, but it isn’t without contest. Although unproven, soy undergoes scrutiny for its potential effects on fertility and thyroid issues. It also has been linked to genetic modification, which poses environmental harm, and frequently travels significant food miles to arrive at our supermarket aisles.
All that said, soy outperforms dairy environmentally and boasts other significant benefits. In terms of water usage, soy is the least thirsty, requiring only 28 litres of water for each litre. Healthwise, soy milk is comparable to cow’s milk in protein and also contains essential amino acids. It’s creamy, mild, and a favourite in coffee and savoury cooking.
A Deep Dive On Nut Alternatives
Almond is hands down the most accessible milk after soy, but the nut alternatives don’t end there. Macadamia and cashew make occasional appearances, while walnut, pecan, pistachio and even peanut are out there too.
Of all the nut options (and plant milks on the whole), almond is the thirstiest and pesticide-hungry, so it often gets a bad rap. It takes five litres to grow a single almond! On top of this, most almond crops are grown in drought-affected areas - namely, California - adding increased pressure. Recently, there has been further uproar regarding the decline of Californian bees linked to the prolificity of almond farming.
On the plus side, almond milk contains a good amount of Vitamin E, is low calorie, and many options are fortified with Vitamin D and calcium. For some, it’s the perfect nutty addition to a morning coffee or bowl of cereal. Cashew milk offers zinc, copper and magnesium, which aid in supporting the immune system. Macadamia is rich and smooth, low calorie and a good source of healthy monosaturated fats to help heart health. Pistachio (watch this space) is heralded for its frothy, creamy nature and provides an antioxidant called resveratrol - good for the heart and fighting ageing.
Bear in mind; most nut milks contain minimal amounts of the nut themselves - often only 2%. If nuts are your thing, seek out options with the highest percentage possible and remember the full benefits (fibre et al.) are best received when eaten as a good snack.
The Oat Milk Hype
Oat milk is promising to change the way we see alternative milks with its rapid growth and uptake. It is a cheap option made from oats and water (even more so when you make it yourself).
Oat milk has more protein and fibre than almond milk and Vitamins A, B12 and D, riboflavin, calcium, and phosphorous. Moreover, oat milk contains an essential soluble fibre - beta-glucans - which helps support a healthy gut microbiome and can reduce cholesterol absorption. It is a higher calorie option but promises to satiate hunger for longer as well.
Environmentally, its production requires six times less water than almond. Typically, the crops are low maintenance and are grown in rotations to help promote biodiversity and good soil health and longevity. Look for local options where possible and keep the food miles down.
Last But Not Least: The Seeds
Flax and hemp milks are making their way into the market. Prepare the red carpet and let the fanfare commence as both boast eco-credibility and nutritional benefits.
Hemp milk is an excellent source of protein (topping almond and coconut) and is also a good source of minerals such as phosphorous, potassium, calcium, iron and zinc. The plant itself is incredibly resilient and can be grown in a range of conditions with little water, boosting its sustainability factor.
Flax (or linseed) milk is a great source of omega-3 essential fatty acids and is also high in fibre. It is easily grown in many areas across the world, listing at least 50 countries.
How To Choose A Milk Alternative
Ultimately, the decision of which milk to drink is entirely personal. You may have specific dietary requirements or allergies that whittle your options down. You may consider the accompanying nutrients and select based on your health needs, or you may weigh up the environmental impact of each and choose the least problematic.
Regardless, make sure you read the ingredients list when weighing up your dairy alternatives. Are there unknown or hard-to-pronounce inputs? Have sugars been added to sweeten the deal? Be mindful and opt for the bottle with the fewest ingredients possible. Many will add thickeners like guar gum or gellan gum to help achieve the desired consistency, which are both not inherently bad but can cause digestive issues if sensitive. Or you could go down the DIY route and make it yourself. It’s incredibly easy (essentially, water + preferred base blended and strained) and likely the most sustainable way, but keep in mind that you may miss out on the additional nutrients many commercial plant milks are fortified with.
Plant milks aren’t going away any time soon, so join the movement. Which will you choose?