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Is Oat Milk Ethical? A Breakdown of How Alt-Milks Impact the Earth

Photo of alt milk by GEORGE DESIPRIS via Pexels.

It’s hardly news that cow-derived dairy has been met with a strong and far more sustainable competitor: plant-based milks, or alt milks. Some people like the way milks made from nuts, seeds and grains taste, while others are looking to avoid a stomachache due to lactose intolerance.

And plenty of us don’t like the impact of cows on our already-burdened planet. A single cow can generate 200 pounds of methane (a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change) in one day. Animal agriculture constitutes for one-fourth of our global water footprint. And then of course, there’s the ethics of removing baby cows from their mothers so we can drink that cow’s milk instead.

Soy, nut, hemp, and oat are only some of the now commonplace alt milks. Some better for you—and have a smaller environmental footprint too. What’s the healthiest milk for planet and people?

Here’s a breakdown (each milks stats are for a one-cup serving): 

Oat Milk

Water: 10 liters 

CO2: 0.18 kg  

Protein: 3 grams

Fat: 5 grams 

Calories: 120

Oat milk is super-popular right now—one time there was even an oat milk shortage in Brooklyn and everyone flipped (no, seriously). But oat milk isn’t new—it was developed in 1994 by a food scientist looking into lactose intolerance and sustainability.

The grain uses roughly six times less water than most nut milks and contributes little in carbon production. This milk is high in fiber and low in GMOs. The downside is that many of the nutrients you’d get from a bowl of hot (or cold) oats don’t make it through the straining process or into the milk. But fortification (adding vitamins and minerals to a final product) usually takes care of that. Oat milk has plenty of calcium and vitamin D. Additionally, there are few allergens and rarely any added sugar! 

Soy Milk

Water: 5 liters 

CO2: 0.195 kg 

Protein: 7 grams

Fat: 4 grams 

Calories: 80 

The US and Brazil account for over half of the world’s soy production, with the United States ranking at no.1. Soy has an origin story dating back three millennia ago, where it was first domesticated by farmers in China. During the nineties, soy really became the first popularized alternative milk for the lactose intolerant—or the health nut—as a glass of soy has just as much protein and calcium as a glass of cow’s milk.

Comparatively, the crop doesn’t suck up water resources and irrigation is well-planned. However, the production of soy has disturbed ecosystems and caused mass deforestation. The Amazon rainforest has taken serious blows from soy farming. The legume has sparked controversy over its environmental hazards and being genetically modified (it’s always best to look for an organic or non GMO label). If soy is your go-to, keep your eyes peeled for transparency amongst brands. Sourcing is crucial. Edensoy is a great brand with biodegradable packaging and sources from family farms in the US—so it’s not contributing to Amazon forest destruction. Soy is one of the oldest plant-based alternatives but perhaps is the filk for an era that’s past.  

What milk you choose for our daily coffee or tea has an impact on the planet. Photo by mentatdgt via Pexels.

Almond Milk 

Water: 74 liters  

CO2: 0.14 kg 

Protein: 2 gram

Fat: 3 grams

Calories: 40

Assuming you are not deathly allergic, nut milks are very popular, probably due to their delicious flavor. Almond milk been touted as healthier than animal and soy. Although almond milk production involves low CO2 emissions, that’s outweighed by the amount of water needed. Big almond production exists in drought-ridden California, only aggravating the issue.

A single almond needs about a gallon of water to grow. Almond milk is a great source of vitamin E which helps manage stress levels and prevents disease— but the crop itself is one of the most water intensive.

Other Nut Milks

If you want to meet your daily calcium intake— macadamia, hazelnut and cashew (technically a drupe) are harvested in areas which aren’t so water deficient. The magical root structure of hazelnut trees sequester carbon and combat erosion. (Eco-Chick’s editor counts hazelnut milk as her fave for its flavor; she even makes her own from local nuts.) 

Popular brand Milkadamia sources its nuts from Australia which is the homeland of the macadamia tree along with many flowering plants.  If you love the buttery and rich flavor that nut milks bring, remember that you have options. 

Coconut Milk

Water: Minimal

CO2: .1 liters

Protein: 0

fat: 5 grams

Calories: 80 (can vary) 

Coconut milk is a newer but well-loved alternative with a sweet and floral flavor profile. The production has a fairly neutral environmental impact. The coconut tree requires little water and is thought to isolate and store carbon in its trunk and leaves. The downside? Coconuts grow in tropical climates and therefore have a decent carbon footprint from their transport, though less than almond and dairy.

Coconut milk is full of MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) which have been researched and thought to stimulate weight loss and assist with gut health. MCTs create the majority of coconut fat, and while studies have displayed a positive correlation MCTs have on metabolism, there is still much to be explored in overall health and environmental potential. Unlike nut milks and soy milk, coconut milk doesn’t have any protein.   

Alt milks vary in flavor, protein content, and sweetness, but all of them make a fine replacement for cow’s milk in recipes and just for snacking. Photo by Nixon Johnson via Pexels.

Hemp Milk 

Water: 10 liters

CO2: None (could be carbon negative)

Protein: 4.7 grams

Fat: 7 grams

Calories: 85

In 2018 the United States Farm Bill was transformed in a major way: Hemp became legal to grow on American soil, Previously, hemp was put in the same category as all cannabis plants and under the Controlled Substances Act and considered a schedule 1 drug. Hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, which is the part of the cannabis plant that can intoxicate, so it’s not a drug. Now, hemp milk is easy to find and is one of the more eco-friendly options. The plant requires a bit more water than oat (but far less than almond and dairy) and the crop is very sturdy, meaning pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers aren’t generally required.

Though more research is needed, the hemp plant has been reported to have strong roots which boost soil health by sequestering CO2. Hemp is also high in protein and packed with the 10 essential amino acids. Overall, this alternative is easy for our body to digest (unlike cow’s milk) and seems to improve earth’s soil too. Like many plants, hemp does best in areas where rain falls consistently.  

Milk is usually associated with life or birth or growth. Something we told our kids they needed to grow strong. On the other hand, the dairy industry has simultaneously contributed to the destruction of the environment.

In 2018 alone, big dairy lost about 1 billion dollars whereas plant-based milks roughly accrued that. It is undeniable that modern food culture is leaning toward a consciousness and sustainability that was once void in our kitchens. Though hemp and coconut milk seem to have the most positive environmental and physical effects, any milk alternative you choose is far less impactful than dairy. 

Natalie is a writer living in New York where she studies psychology and journalism. There is nothing she loves more than listening to a good story. Her interests include science, drinking too much coffee, hiking, researching cults, and farm-to-table dining.