- Whether you’re lactose intolerant or not, there’s seemingly a neverending array of plant-based alternatives to dairy these days.
- Many people switch from cows’ milk to a non-dairy alternative for environmental reasons, but it’s hard to know whether it’s really better for the planet if we’re shipping almonds from across the globe.
- Equally, no dairy-free milk can match the nutritional profile of cow’s milk, dietitians Rosie Saunt and Helen West of evidence-based nutrition company The Rooted Project explained to Insider.
- Here’s how to decide which milk is right for you.
- Read more Live Well with Rachel here.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
I switched to unsweetened almond milk a few years ago because I wanted to cut calories, and because dairy tends to make me feel a bit nauseous. However, I keep reading about how almond milk is bad for the environment. What’s the best alternative milk to drink if you don’t want cows’ milk (or the calories) that won’t completely destroy the planet?
— Confused Consumer
I don’t blame you for feeling how you do — it seems like every day there’s a different study, influencer, or headline telling us what type of milk we should and shouldn’t be consuming.
Non-dairy milk alternatives have soared in popularity in recent years, so much so that it’s almost impossible to find a cafe that doesn’t at least offer soya or oat milks, if not almond, hemp, coconut, cashew, rice, tiger nut, or any other nut or seed for that matter.
When deciding which milk to have in your latte, tea, porridge, and smoothies, it feels like there’s a lot to consider these days: Which is healthiest for me? Which is best for the planet? And, actually, which do I like the most?
There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there.
Dairy products aren’t unhealthy, and you don’t need to cut them out if you enjoy them — not only is cows’ milk an excellent source of calcium, protein, and vitamin D, it’s also more hydrating than water according to a new study by St Andrews University in Scotland.
However, it’s estimated that 65% of the global population have some degree of lactose intolerance, and it’s not uncommon to feel unwell after consuming large amounts of dairy, as you say.
How to choose a healthy milk alternative
You mention you also made the switch to unsweetened almond milk in a bid to save some calories, and it certainly is the lowest calorie option.
Here’s how the calories compare in 100ml of various milks, in ascending order:
- Unsweetened almond milk: 13
- Coconut milk: 20
- Cashew milk: 23
- Hemp milk: 26
- Sweetened almond milk: 27
- Unsweetened soya milk: 33
- Skimmed cows’ milk: 37
- Sweetened soya milk: 39
- Rice milk: 47
- Semi-skimmed cows’ milk: 50
- Oat milk: 57
- Whole milk: 66
Of course, these numbers will vary slightly depending on the brand you buy. And equally, there’s more to health than calories, but since that was one of your goals, it’s something to keep in mind.
From a health point of view, specialist registered dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine believes there are various points to consider.
Firstly, she recommends choosing unsweetened varieties to avoid any added sugar.
A post shared by Nichola Ludlam-Raine 🇬🇧 RD (@nicsnutrition)
Secondly, “choose milk alternatives that are fortified with vitamins such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D, in addition to the minerals calcium and iodine,” Ludlam-Raine told Insider.
“Fortified means that they are added by the manufacturer and so will be on the ingredients list (or advertised on the front).”
Equally, if you’re eating plant-based alternatives to cheese and yogurt, you should make sure those are fortified with extra vitamins, too.
What about the planet?
Of course, the environmental impact of the food we’re consuming is important to consider too, as you so rightly say.
After all, can we really justify drinking a milk made from nuts flown from across the world when we have cows in fields up and down the country?
“Eating sustainably for both the planet and one’s own health are extremely important topics,” dietitians Rosie Saunt and Helen West of evidence-based nutrition company The Rooted Project explained to Insider. “Both can go hand in hand, but it’s a complicated area.
“Most science studies have concluded meat and dairy products have the greatest dietary environmental impact. So swapping dairy milk for a milk alternative might be a good place to start if trying to eat more plant-based,” the authors of “Is butter a carb?” said.
“Research has indicated that all plant-based dairy alternatives produce significantly fewer carbon emissions compared to dairy milk.
“Alternatives such as oat, soy, and cashew milks use much less water during production. Although almond and rice milk use relatively large amounts of water to produce, this volume is still less than dairy.
“This means any swap, almond milk or otherwise, would be beneficial from an environmental point of view.”
And Ludlam-Raine echoes this.
“Whilst it’s true that the majority of the world’s almonds are grown in California, the carbon footprint is still less than that from the production of cows’ milk,” she said.
The amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the production of a 200ml glass of cows’ milk is three times what’s needed to produce all plantbased milks, a University of Oxford study found. Equally, the amount of water and land required in the production of dairy milks far exceeds that of dairy-free alternatives.
A post shared by Nichola Ludlam-Raine 🇬🇧 RD (@nicsnutrition)
From an environmental point of view, Ludlam-Raine recommends trying hemp or oat milk instead of almond.
“Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds, and just one hectare of hemp offsets a year’s carbon from two cars as it breathes in four times more Co2 than trees; hemp really is good news for the planet,” she explained.
“Oat milk is made from oats which are grown in the UK and Europe (meaning they have to travel less of a distance); you can also quite easily make oat milk at home, however the end result won’t be fortified with nutrients such as calcium, which is added to the majority of oat milks in the supermarket.”
A sustainable choice for you and the planet
It’s all very well buying a milk that is good for the earth, but it needs to work for you, too.
“A sustainable diet for the planet needs to be sustainable for you as an individual,” West and Saunt advise. “If choosing a milk alternative, choose what tastes good to you and is also affordable.”
Dairy-free milks aren’t for everyone, and the dietitians point out that none of them match the nutrient profile of dairy (although soya milk contains similar levels of protein).
“For this reason, some vulnerable groups such as young children, older adults, or those on low incomes may not find it easy to get important nutrients found in dairy without nutritional support,” West and Saunt said.
“It’s possible to have a low environmental impact diet whilst still eating dairy, so dairy-free doesn’t have to be for everyone.”
If you do want to go dairy-free, though, Ludlam-Raine suggests varying your milks to lessen your carbon footprint and environmental impact.
“Remember that hemp and oat milks are better for environment in comparison to almond, rice, and coconut (taking into account their water usage too,” she said.
Ultimately, though, there’s no perfect millk, and only you can decide what’s most important to you and make your milk choice accordingly.
If in doubt, why not mix it up according to your tastes? Try using cow’s milk in your tea and coffee, then switch up plantbased milks in your smoothies and cereals.
At the end of the day, the fact that you’re thinking about your environmental impact is to be applauded, so don’t beat yourself up for trying to make the perfect choice — there’s no such thing.
Wishing you well,
As INSIDER’s Senior Lifestyle Reporter and a self-confessed fitness fanatic, Rachel Hosie is fully immersed in the wellness scene and is here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light vs. heavy weights, or don’t know whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips — she regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up-to-date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest, healthiest life.
Have a question? Ask Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.
- I struggle to eat healthy food and fit in exercise when I’m busy and stressed. How can I stay on track?
- I have no experience lifting weights and feel intimidated in the gym. Where should I start?
- I really want to make exercise a regular part of my life, but can’t seem to make myself actually do it. How do I make the motivation last?
- I’m on a low-calorie diet, exercise a lot, but still have fat on my belly and bum. What am I doing wrong?
- How do I maintain my healthy eating and exercising routine when staying with family who don’t care about nutrition or fitness?