The Great Milk Mystery: Which Is Healthiest for You and the Planet?
Pushing a shopping cart down the milk isle in a store, I often just look in wonder: How can a product that at one point just came from cows now come from sources as varied as coconuts, cashews, and rice?
Growing up, it was all about 2% milk in my household. Without a question. And still, that’s my family’s go-to. And honestly my three siblings and I grew up to be (knock on wood) quite healthy.
I turned to non-dairy milks such as soy and almond milk when I started to grow more concerned about climate change. I learned that cow manure from dairy farms is a major source of the greenhouse gas methane that fuels climate change—in addition to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that's nearly 300 times as potent at fueling climate change as carbon dioxide (NRDC).
I also became concerned with how nutritious milk and dairy really are and with issues such as antibiotic resistance, which happens when livestock including dairy cows are given antibiotics to treat and control diseases, and so harmful bacteria develop a resistance to these medically-important treatments.
So if you, like me, still enjoy a bit of something sweet and creamy in your coffee or tea but don’t know where to turn, here’s what I’ve found on the best choices for the Earth--and your own health!
What’s the Deal with Dairy Milk’s Nutrition?
Cow's milk is loaded with health benefits—calcium, vitamin D, protein, and potassium.
Just one cup of whole cow's milk (244 g) has about 8 grams of protein and 28% of your daily value of calcium, according to Healthline. It's also a great source of and Omega-3 fatty acids that can help lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease--especially if it comes from cows that eat mostly grass.
However, let’s talk about those health benefits: while they are scientifically proven, research also shows more than half the human population—65 percent—have a difficult time digesting dairy in adulthood (NIH).
In addition, dairy milk can also lead to a variety of health concerns. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says dairy is the top source of saturated fat in the American diet, and it can cause type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheizemer’s disease. It’s also been connected to an increased risk of cancers including breast, ovarian, prostate.
I believe it’s also important to keep in mind that governments are still promoting the health benefits of dairy despite substantial scientific evidence of its many health risks. Dairy is often marketed as providing calcium necessary for building strong bones. While bones do need calcium, they also need Vitamin K. Both calcium and Vitamin K can be found in green vegetables like broccoli and kale.
Vitamin D is also important for bone health. While milk does have Vitamin D, it’s not there naturally--it’s added in a process called fortification (The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine).
'Milking’ the Planet’s Resources?
While the dairy industry in many regions—especially California—is taking steps to have less of an impact on nature, many stats reveal that the industry as a whole takes a much larger toll on the planet than plant-based milks.
Producing just one cup of cow's milk requires the same resources as about two tennis courts of land, an Oxford University study found.
This is often land that is valuable habitats and ecosystems for wildlife, such as forests, prairies, and wetlands (World Wildlife Fund).
As I’d mentioned, cows and their manure are also a major source of greenhouse gas methane that contributes to climate change.
While methane is often seen as not quite as dangerous a fuel for climate change as carbon dioxide, on a 100-year timescale the opposite is true—it’s about 28 times as potent at warming the planet (National Geographic). Ramp that timescle up to 20 years and it’s about 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide!
In fact, the Food and Drug Organization of the United Nations estimates that about 14.5% of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to livestock--in particular, burping cows! (World Economic Forum).
And there are plenty of these cows--270 million and counting as the world’s population continues to climb, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
In addition, poor manure handling by the dairy industry can pollute fresh water resources (WWF).
Something we’ve experienced in my beautiful home of the Finger Lakes Region is noxious, soupy green algae popping up in once crystal-clear lakewater.
In fact, throughout New York State there were 150 reported incidents in 2017 (Pressconnects--the paper where I first worked).
You may have heard this algae led to the tragic deaths of many beloved pet dogs, but it's also toxic to people and lake water can even be deemed too toxic to swim in. This is something that's very new to me, as I grew up on the shores of Seneca Lake, the deepest Finger Lake, and I still can't believe there are days when the algae prevents me from doing something I've done my whole life--jump into its refreshing waters that are like a cool caress on a hot day (Star Gazette).
These “Harmful Algal Blooms” or HBCs as they’ve been called have been traced back to dairy farms (AgMag). Specially, manure runoff from concentrated feeding operations (CFOs) is the suspected culprit.
Just one dairy cow can make around 120 pounds of waste a year (Pressconnects). This waste is then often kept in holding “lagoons.” Only 14 CFOs around the Lake Erie Watershed are estimated to create around 630 million gallons of animal waste every year (Ag Mag).
These lagoons often seep into groundwater and other nearby waterways, eventually making their way into lakes. Sometimes this manure will even be injected into fields.
Pressconnects did great reporting on how Sunnyside Farms emptied about 3 million gallons of liquid manure--from a manure lagoon with a leak--onto fields.
It’s believed this manure eventually ran off into Cayuga Lake, causing the “pea-soup” looking blue-green algae that, when consumed in high amounts, can cause both human and animal liver failure (Ag Mag). Less severe symptoms include skin rashes and breathing and eye issues.
While the environmental impacts of dairy can be quite disturbing, there are ways to consume more ethically for the Earth.
One method is to only buy brands that are produced locally which can cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions involved in the milk's transport (NRDC).
In addition, cutting back on the calories and fat in milk can also cut down on the carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Skim milk can have as much as 9 percent less associated greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram as whole milk. This is "because simply some of the resource use and GHG [greenhousegas] emissions is allocated to the cream coproduct.”—thus saving resources, according to Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant via the NRDC. Looking for butter and heavy cream made with skimmed milk can also be better for the planet for this reason.
The Amazing Almond Takeover
It’s hard to beat the satisfying crunch of a crisp almond. When I first started learning about some of the health and environmental concerns about dairy milk, almond milk became my replacement.
Turns out, I’m not alone. Almond milk seems to be the go-to for many Americans in the 21st century. According to Refinery, in the 1970s the average American drank over 30 gallons of cow’s milk per year. In 2016, it fell to 18 gallons.
And so the sale of cow’s milk has fallen one third since the 1970s, in the United States (Huffpost).
In fact, Borden Dairy, the milk-producing company with the iconic Elsie the cow, announced on Jan. 5, 2020 that it’s filing for bankruptcy (MSN).
Borden has blamed its downturn in business on, “market challenges facing the dairy industry.”
Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk producer, filed for bankruptcy protection in November.
In fact, the USDA’s research has found American dairy milk consumption is down 26% since the year 2000.
However, this may not necessarily mean less milk is being made.
In 2018, Walmart opened an Indiana plant for its hundreds of Midwest stores that processes around 95 million gallons of milk--business that is thus taken away from Borden and Dean Foods.
Almonds seem like quite a dry nut, so how can they be “milked”? The answer: they are soaked in water. If you’d like to make them at home, you can soak them for around 8 hours and then toss them in a blender with some vanilla.
Buying the store-bought version is probably easiest for those of us with busy schedules, and there are many positives compared to dairy milk. Almond milk is usually around half the calories. More natural brands without added sugars or chemicals can be great for blood pressure since they have a low carbohydrate count, and they have healthy fats that can keep you feeling full (WebMD).
One serving of almond milk is also rich in Vitamin E, which is great for your skin. It also has about one gram of protein and one gram of fiber. Cow’s milk is significantly higher in protein, however, at about 8 grams (WebMD).
Almond Water Woes
Now looking at numbers generally, it would seem almond milk clearly has less of an impact on the environment than dairy milk.
In California, cows emit about 45 percent of the greenhouse gas methane. Almonds can have carbon emissions that are around 10 times lower than dairy milk.
However, almonds require a lot of water in a state that has been stricken with droughts made more intense by climate change—the drought from 2012 to 2016 was the worst in about 1,200 years (NRDC). California produces around 80 percent of the world’s almonds, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Almond farms have taken over around 23,000 acres of natural land between 2007 and 2014, years that coincide with the historic drought (Forbes).
Just one glass of almond milk requires more water than the average shower—about 130 pints (74 litres).
Rice milk is another that requires a large amount of water at around 14.3 gallons (54 litres) per cup (BBC). That’s still less than dairy, though, which requires around 32 gallons (120 L) of water to produce just one cup.
Let’s compare this to a few other popular dairy milk substitutes. I will admit, I love the creamy texture and vanilla flavors of soy milk. However, it also comes at a higher water cost. One litre (0.3 gallon, or about 5 cups) of soy milk requires nearly 79 gallons (300 litres) of water to make (Medium). So if my math is correct, that’s about 16 gallons per cup!
So into Soy
Soy milk does also have its health benefits. Like almond milk, it’s often fortified with calcium and its often low in saturated fats. Soybeans can also be a good source of protein and potassium.
However, it can also be a popular allergen for people, and it can cause problems, particularly for people with thyroid conditions (Healthline).
In 2018, soy milk had around 13 percent of the non-dairy milk market share. It was one of the original non-dairy milk substitutes, so it is actually declining in popularity as other alternatives such as almond and oat milk are on the rise.
So Much Better for the Planet?
Let’s look at its environmental impact: Its greenhouse gas emissions come in behind dairy and rice by quite a bit. Per 7 fluid-ounce (200ml) glass, its emissions are about 1 pound (0.4kg) less than dairy and slightly better than rice milk at about 0.2 pound (0.1kg) less emissions (BBC).
Coconut milk might just be the friendliest option for the planet.
These hardy fruits (which always make me visualize a pristine ocean scene) are light on the land in terms of farming since they don’t require many pesticides or fertilizers (Grist). It also takes much less water and greenhouse gas emissions to farm coconuts compared to soy and almonds.
In addition, these fascinating fruits may even be able to capture the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air and store it in soil! (Sierra Club)
Coconuts are also packed with many nutrients, including fiber, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 and minerals including iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.
The fat in coconut milk might also help protect the body from disease-causing organisms because it contains something called lauric acid that the body converts to the antiviral, antibacterial,and antifungal substance monolaurin (BBC Food).
So why hasn’t this magical milk taken off? I hate to say it, but I think it might have something to do with its taste and its ability to pair with coffee and other milk necessities.
I’ve tried coconut milk and found itust isn’t that creamy, thick, smooth flavor we were conditioned to expect from milk--it’s quite bland. It also doesn’t mix well in coffee and gives it an almost metal-like taste.
However, I’m not sure if maybe this is the placebo effect or not, but I swear everytime I get coconut milk in my coffee at Starbucks, it does seem to taste ten times better (maybe because it’s around 10 times as expensive?)—it just seems like the right hint of coconut flavor that reminds me of Jamaican-me-Crazy coffee.
So I recommend this substitute at coffee shops, but I think our next plant-based milk contender takes the cake when it comes to taste.
Oats to the Rescue?
Oat milk is my new obsession, and I also believe it’s slowly taking over the milk market.
Oatly, a Swedish company, is currently one of the top producers of oat milk and its been in the business for a while—around 25 years (Bustle). I can’t help but crack a smile whenever I see it’s clever marketing, with slogans on its packaging like “Wow--No Cow!”
With its incredibly creamy consistency and smooth, slightly sweet yet earthy taste (with hints of its oat origins), I would say oat milk looks and tastes the most like its cow-made counterpart.
Yet only about 1/10th of the land needed to make dairy milk is required to produce oat milk. It also requires less fossil fuel emissions per glass than dairy milk—about 1.1 pound (0.5 kg) less (BBC).
Oatly states that, “measured throughout the life of the product, from cradle to grave, oat drink generates 80% lower greenhouse emissions than cow’s milk.”
In fact, Oatly was born out of a desire to create a product that was gentler on the planet. The company states that it was founded in the 1990s by researchers at Lund University who wanted to create, “products that everyone can enjoy without worrying about allergies, health, animal ethics or overuse of our planet's resources.”
Oatly-Amazing Health Benefits?
Here’s where Oatly has a cutting-edge solution.
“We actually liquify the oats using a special enzymatic process,” U.S. general manager Mike Messersmith said via a MIC article.
This means the nutritional benefits of the oats such as fiber, healthy fat and protein are transferred to the beverage. This does mean that it is slightly higher in calories than almond milk, though.
However, it also offers a swath of other nutritional benefits.
One glass (240 ml) offers about 3 grams of protein, 50% of your daily value of vitamin B12, 27% of your daily value of calcium, 18% of your daily value of Vitamin D, 18% of your daily value of Vitamin A, and 2% of your daily value of Iron (Healthline). Oat milk generally offers more calories, fiber, and carbs than soy, almond, or cow’s milk.
So Many Considerations
While all of the information above may seem cut and dry against dairy, I will say that in pouring over a lot of research for this article, I did find that milk is still considered a nutritional product and absolutely necessary for infants due to its lactose concentration.
However, if you are looking to do one small thing to help the planet, swapping your dairy milk for a plant-based milk might just be the ticket.
So as the winter wears on, why not try making some hot cocoa with one of these milk substitutes? Would love to hear how it tastes--of course, I can’t imagine too much that doesn’t go with chocolate! :)
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/almond-milk-health-benefits#section4 (almond milk less calcium)
https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46654042 (almond milk more water than average shower).
https://eos.org/editors-vox/methane-climate-change-and-our-uncertain-future (methane secondary to carbon)