Is plant milk better than dairy? Well that all depends on what you care about most; your health, the health of the planet, animal welfare, price, or taste? It’s probably a combination of all these things but it’s worth listing them in order of priority because if you’re wondering what’s the best choice between plant and cow’s milk, let me tell you that I’ve done the research and my head is spinning. If you care about your health and the planet equally, there’s no best choice when it comes to plant and dairy milk, but some plants are more sustainable than others, and certain brands fare better than others.
If health is your top priority, dairy wins
Nutritionally, and assuming you don’t have a dairy intolerance, you’ll get the most nutrients, for the best price, when you choose real dairy. Dairy farming does produce high volumes of greenhouse gas emissions and the treatment of male calves after birth is a difficult subject. Cows are unable to produce milk without giving birth to a calf and although some “bobby calves” are kept and sold onto beef farmers, others are slaughtered for veal. Regardless their fate is the same. Personally, I struggle a bit with this, but I do use dairy products and I try to create domestic carbon credits elsewhere by minimising food waste, recycling responsibly, repurposing where I can and making more sustainable choices in other areas.
Whole, low fat or skimmed?
Research these days is conflicting when it comes to whole fat, low fat and skimmed milk. The Australian Heart Foundation at one time only recommended low fat and skimmed milk products, but now says you can take your pick unless you are at risk of heart disease or have high cholesterol, in which case you should choose reduced-fat dairy products. Dairy products are generally rated by the nutrients protein, saturated fat, carbohydrate, and calcium but milk also provides vitamins A, B2 and B6.
Throw menopause into the mix and the decision on whether to have full fat, low fat or skimmed may be determined by the extra energy (calories) in full-fat dairy. As we age, we tend to gain weight and savings in energy (calorie) consumption from a reduced-fat product may be better spent on foods that provide a broader range of essential nutrients. Reduced-fat milk has fewer calories and it also has marginally more calcium, and protein but marginally fewer Vitamins A, B2 and B6. Vitamins A, B2 and B6 can be made up elsewhere.
Skimmed and Low-fat milk does not have added sugar
It’s a myth that reduced fat and skimmed milk has added sugar. If you remember the days when milk was delivered to the door in bottles, you’ll also remember that a good thick layer of cream sat on the top of the bottle. Shake the bottle and you have whole milk homogenised milk. Pour the cream off the top and you have reduced-fat milk.
There’s slightly more natural sugar – lactose – in a litre (or any other measure) of reduced-fat milk simply because the cream is removed, and more reduced-fat milk is added to replace the full-fat cream. For that same reason, low fat and skimmed milk have more calcium and protein. It has marginally fewer Vitamins A, B2 and B6 because these nutrients are found in the cream.
Plant-based milk (PBM) and protein
As we move into a discussion about PBM; to set the record straight, anyone who thinks they’ll find more protein in almond milk than dairy is misled. One cup of almond milk provides around 1.5 g of protein. Compare that to the same amount of reduced-fat milk which provides significantly more (8.25g). You will find some almond milk which claims to be high in protein, but they’re mixed with beans such as peas and fava beans. I’ll talk more about almond milk later.
In a nutshell, if health is your priority, and you don’t have a dairy allergy, then dairy is the best nutritional choice, and if you are trying to reduce energy and lose weight reduced fat is a good choice.
All that said, because you do care about the environment, understand that cows take up more land than crops used to make plant-based milk, consume food we could eat, and emit GHG (greenhouse gases), here are some tips from Jennifer Nielsen, founder of ekko.world
- Pay a little bit extra for local milk and send a message to the supermarkets and big producers who screw-down farmer prices. Your milk won’t have taken a ride all over the country and racked up travel miles. The energy in refrigeration will be reduced and the milk is 99% likely to be fresher.
- Buy in the biggest container to minimise plastic or buy glass bottles.
- Buy organic milk for minimal herbicides and pesticides. Your milk maker will probably have led a better life as well.
When sustainability and health are equally important
Let’s crack open the hornet’s nest here and move on to plant-based milk (PBM), and can I just say here that it’s so complicated I’m tempted to suggest you just eliminate them all from your diet. Do we really need them? It is a legitimate question. Have PBM’s become something we think we need when we don’t?
My first bit of advice with PBM’s is to read the label.
PBM’s do have a lower impact on the climate. They require less land to produce, produce less greenhouse gas emissions and require less water. The issue is more complex when health is equally important as the environment because you must also consider how to replace key nutrients found in dairy, the additives that go into the milk, and chemicals found in some plant-based products which may have been used to grow the crops.
Replacement of key nutrients
Calcium is the main nutrient added to PBM’s and most manufacturers add calcium carbonate and tricalcium phosphate, produced synthetically or obtained from chalk, limestone, and rock. Pureharvest, an Australian company add plant- calcium, a red seaweed product called AquaMin F, a natural mineral source produced from calcareous marine algae (Lithothamnion sp.). It’s believed to be easier to digest and more bioavailable than calcium from rocks. My gut suggests that’s true but, as always, whenever I search on science-based sites, the caveat is always – more research is required.
Beyond calcium, some plant-based milk manufacturers add vitamins such as Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) B12, A. B2, D. These are all worthwhile, particularly D, to utilise the calcium, and Vitamin A and B12 if you’re vegan because these nutrients are only found in animal foods.
Make no mistake, PBM’s are highly processed, but some are better than others. Generally, the fewer ingredients a product contains the better it is however, for PMB’s to have the same mouthfeel, stretch and texture as milk they add other ingredients like fat from rapeseed, otherwise known as canola oil, sunflower oil, emulsifiers, gums and stabilisers, and in some instances sweeteners. Further manufacturing is required to extract the oil from plants like canola and sunflower and the process includes the cleaning and grinding of seeds, pressing and extraction of crude oil from the seeds and further refining using a volatile hydrocarbon like hexane to extract the oil. More chemicals and more energy are required in the process. Every plant-based milk I could find used either sunflower oil, canola or rapeseed.
Other than soy milk, to create a barista blend and give the milk stretch and stability when heated, manufacturers use dibasic potassium phosphate. It’s a chemical approved in Europe and found in some medicines, and like most medications, there are side effect warnings you’ll find when you search online. I suppose it’s like most things and depends on how much you’re consuming. Dibasic potassium phosphate is also used in packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, ice cream, and packages sauces.
I doubt that the very small percentage of plants used in these milk products makes chemical residue much of an issue especially given how highly processed they are anyway but it’s worthy of discussion. Rice pulls arsenic from the ground and if you’re having whole rice the message is to wash, wash and wash it again. Then there are the issues of chemical fertilisers and pest control used in large crops. I know of a farmer in NSW whose oats were used to feed racehorses in Sydney. When the horses were tested for performance drugs, their blood showed up with chemicals attributed to their oat feed. These days the horses can only be fed organic oats but it’s fine, Uncle Tobys take the rest!
The best way around this, if you care about your health, is to buy organic plant-based milk, but if the environment is your main concern, you must be aware that many of the Australian organic plant-based milk manufacturers source their organic grains from overseas because Australia doesn’t produce enough to meet the demand.
Which plant-based milk is the most sustainable
There’s a brilliant article on plant-based sustainably found on the website ediblebrooklym that explains life cycle assessments of products, how they are measured for GWP (global warming potential) and FWC (freshwater consumption) amongst other things.
Soy and almond milk
Pitted against soy milk almonds fair badly. Almonds use way too much water, only 3% of the almonds are used to produce the milk and nutritionally it is an inferior product to both soy and dairy. Many almond milk brands have added sugar with emulsifiers and gums to hold it all together.
Soy requires much less water to grow and is a good source of protein, however, residue glyphosates are a concern unless the product is organic. In Australia, farmers can’t match the demand for organic soy and the product is sourced from China.
Fortified with calcium, oat milk can be a highly environmentally efficient way of obtaining these nutrients but before you purchase any plant-based milk product, read the label to find out what’s in it, where it’s manufactured and where the oats are grown.
One of the best-selling oat milk products is Oatly. Oatly is a Swedish company that source oats from Canada and manufactures the product in the Netherlands before exporting it to Australia and other countries. It’s well-travelled plant milk. We might think cargo ships emit less carbon pollution than aeroplanes, but they don’t. Ships transport more than 10 billion metric tons of cargo each year, including clothing, electronics, and oil. Almost all of these ships run on fossil fuels, so they emit a lot of carbon pollution. Maritime shipping causes about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions – even more than airplanes. (I had to google that).
Interestingly, Oatly and Chobani oat milk (Chobani oats are also grown in Canada and the milk is manufactured in the US) are found in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. I don’t know whether, the companies or distributors pay more for this product placement, but their location, alongside all the fresh dairy milk, creates the impression that, like dairy milk, the milk is fresh and, we all know that fresh is best. It’s marketing genius but the truth is that these products are no better for you than the others found in the centre of the supermarket where the other PBM’s and long-life UHT milk is found.
Oat milk is a better sustainable choice, provided you buy an Australian brand, and although it may match dairy in calcium it contains 40% of the protein found in dairy milk. Of the oat milk, I looked as, Pureharvest Organic Oat milk had fewer additives, fewer air miles and, I think, fortified calcium from a better source. (I am not being paid to write any of this)
Pea, hemp, coconut, macadamia milk
I feel I need to say this. Are we really helping the planet by drinking any of these drinks? This is a huge growth industry and with every new brand, more water, more packaging, more chemicals more land is used to grow something we’ve managed happily without before today.
Pea milk is a good source of protein, but to me, it tastes terrible. Peas are a good source of protein and taste great. Eat peas.
Coconut milk is a sustainable choice, but my experience is that it’s terrible in coffee and tea. It’s delicious in curries and other Asian dishes. Use it in curries.
Hemp milk is being touted as the next best sustainable choice. Hemp requires less water and land to grow, it’s a good source of plant-based omega 3 fat, and the fibre from the plant can be used to make fabric and clothing. Only 4% of hemp is used to make hemp milk so nutritionally it doesn’t match dairy milk and at the time of writing it was only available to buy wholesale.
Like almond milk, macadamia milk, uses a small percentage of macadamias (2.5%) it’s boosted with vegetable protein to give it a small 1.2g protein in every 250 ml serve, contains added sugar, and a bunch of gums and other additives to create the mouthfeel we are accustomed to.
More confused? I’m sorry, I was too. Check out my video on plant vs dairy milk on You Tube
Thanks for reading. I hope this article has helped you and I would love to read any comments you may have.