Course:CONS200/2020/Environmental impacts of milk alternatives: Which is the most sustainable option?

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The environmental impacts and ethical considerations of milk production has increased GHG emissions, energy use, and land use around the world[1]. Milk alternatives such as plant-based dairy products have been invented to promote sustainable resources that decreases the biodiversity impacts of dairy production. However, due to the increase in consumption and production of these non-dairy products, they have been linked to higher concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, which has in turn led to global warming and GHG emissions[2]. Although, dairy milk production uses more water than soy and oat milk alternatives, dairy production still uses less water than rice and almond milk[1]. More research today depicts the environmental impact non-dairy milk has on sustainability, in which the increase in demands for milk alternatives that disregard water, land, and environmental energy usage possibly have an adverse effect such as soy milk[2]. Hence, from the common milk alternatives of soy, almond, oat, rice, and hemp milk, the most sustainable option will be identified with regards to environmental factors, including the potential harmful effects of both milk and milk alternatives on the planet for consumers to make environmentally friendly choices.

History of Milk Alternatives

Photograph of the S.K. Stone Dairy Farm in Keene New Hampshire.

Cow milk has been a fundamental part of human nutrition for more than 8000 years[3]. The essential nutrients that cow milk contains has gives it an influential role in dietary recommendations around the world. However, dairy production has a negative impact on the environment making it a less sustainable option. Main issues related to cow milk production are soil degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.[3] These problems have influenced scientists to produce non-dairy milk alternatives that are more sustainable than cow-milk products.

The increase in factors of lactose intolerance, milk allergies, environmental concerns, and high cholesterol diets in dairy products have even caused debates on the internet from critics[3]. The discussion of whether or not milk is sustainable has made society to believe that plant-based milk alternatives are healthy, sustainable, and animal friendly. This has increased the number of plant-based dairy alternatives based on soy, seeds, nuts, legumes, and cereals, influencing higher consumption and production in many countries[1].The rise in popularity of milk alternatives has made it become a lifestyle that is consumed not only for its dietary value, but also because of consumers' individual beliefs[3]. Worldwide, the growth of the plant-based milk market has made it become more mainstream. In modern society today, the economic success of milk alternatives has further developed and explored the fast-growing food market to deliver products that fit consumer preferences[3]. Consequently, milk alternatives could replace and complement dairy products in the human diet, potentially reducing the amount of environmental impact of food consumption[1].

Originating about 2000 years ago in China, soy milk was the first plant-based milk product that became popular replacement for those with allergies to milk proteins and lactose intolerance[4]. The main factors to consume soy products were lactose intolerance, starting a vegetarian diet, and environmental concerns[3]. Due to the high cholesterol, fat and energy content of cow-milk, consumers believed that plant-based products, especially soy, would provide them with the same amount of nutritional and health benefits as dairy milk[3]. The exceptional taste of soy-milk was the reason to continue the consumption of soy products for some people. However, higher costs and reduced availability were the main barriers against the consumption of soy products[3].

Over the last decade, studies have been done to find milk alternatives that fit consumers ideal lifestyle. The motives of most plant-based milk consumers were to be vegetarian in order to live healthy, other reasons ranged from ethical, taste, social, environmental, and economic aspects[3]. Today, many studies report that animal welfare, especially for vegans, is the main reason to pursue a vegetarian lifestyle, including wellness, health, and environmental concerns[3]. Nonetheless, the rise in consumption and production of milk alternatives has resulted from the health and environmental motives of consumers that continue to support farmers and the local economy to supply various alternatives to dairy-based products.

More recently, research has been directed towards cereals, seeds, and nuts as other alternatives to dairy-based products. Plant-based milk products are a rising trend that can serve as an inexpensive alternative to poorer economic groups of developing countries that lack sufficient supply of cow's milk[4]. Though the majority of these plant-based alternatives do not provide enough nutritional balance to people's diets, innovative technologies related to processing and preservation have been created to attract health conscious consumers. New and advanced non-thermal processing technologies such as ultra high temperature treatment, ultra high pressure homogenization, pulsed electric field processing are being researched to tackle the problems related to increasing shelf life, emulsion stability, nutritional completeness and sensory acceptability[4].

The increasing demand for milk alternatives has led to the rise in consumption and production of plant-based dairy alternatives such as soy, seeds, nuts, legumes, and cereals. Producers of the dairy market have provided similar alternatives that agree with society's belief that these alternatives are a more healthy and environmentally friendly option. However, just like soy milk, the new technology used to provide milk alternatives emit a high amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can also enhance global warming compared to only cow's milk[2]. The consequences of providing plant-based milk alternatives that fit consumers beliefs and perspectives about milk has influenced more production and consumption of these products, leading to higher gas emissions, land and water use[2]. The growth of plant-based milk products has been believed to reduce the environmental impacts of milk production, yet, the further enhancement of technology and methods to provide sustainable milk alternatives can also inhibit environmental impacts similar to that of dairy milk.

Milk Substitutes

Milk alternatives help people achieve a healthy lifestyle while remaining environmentally friendly. For example, those that are lactose intolerant can obtain nutrients while avoiding dairy. Common alternative milks include those derived from soy, almond, rice, coconut, hemp and cashew.

Soy milk

Soy milk is a popular plant-based milk alternative. The production process begins with soaking the soybeans before grinding them into a fine powder. The mixture is then boiled and filtered to remove the remaining particles. Soy milk became common in the 20thcentury when it was commonly used in Europe and North America. During this period, production techniques were designed to make it as tasteful as milk and develop some resemblance to milk. This type of non-dairy milk is commonly enjoyed by vegans, individuals who are lactose intolerant and by people with environmental and serious health concerns about the production and intake of dairy milk (Krebzdak, Sebastian, 24).

During production, soy milk is often fortified with vitamins A and D as well as calcium and riboflavin. This is similar to the production of dairy milk. Its protein composition is also similar to that of dairy milk per serving. This nutritional profile makes it the closest alternative in similarity to cow’s milk. A single cup of soy milk contains 105 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrates, approximately 8.9 grams of sugar, 6.35 grams of proteins, 2.68 micrograms of vitamin D, 2.07 micrograms of vitamin B-12, 300 milligrams of calcium, 298 milligrams of potassium and finally zero milligrams of cholesterol. This rich composition differs slightly across the different brands and flavors. The uniqueness of soy milk is that it contains isoflavones which are naturally occurring antioxidants associated with reducing the risk of heart disease. Additionally, a 2014 article suggests that consuming around 10 milligrams of isoflavones can result in a 25% decrease in breast cancer relapse.

Consuming soy milk is beneficial to many groups, one of which is women. Apart from aiding in breast cancer recurrence reduction, it may also be beneficial both during and after menopause. Soy contains and provides compounds called phytoestrogens which tends to mimic the function of estrogen in the body. It has also been suggested that consuming soymilk helps reduce the hot flashes. One thing to take note of is soy milk can never be used as a suitable replacement to breastmilk and formula. Soy milk has a high content of mono-saturated and poly-saturated fats. Soy milk has its downsides too; despite the fact that it contains protein, some soy milk brands are deficient in essential amino acid such as methionine (Lombardi, Ginevra, 85). This is the result of most manufacturing processes. Lack of the methionine, calcium and vitamin D renders soy milk a useless substitute for dairy milk. Soy milk also contains compounds that people refer to as antinutrients. These are known to reduce the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients and can also impair digestion of proteins and carbohydrates. Examples of the antinutrients contained in soy milk through soybeans include; trypsin inhibitors, phytic acids, indigestible oligosaccharides and lectins. However, the antinutrients are reduced and the nutritional values enhanced throughout the manufacturing process.

Despite of its promising nutritional breakdown as a milk alternative, soy milk requires a lot of lands to grow soybeans, especially for a large-scale production. For instance, there are many areas of the Amazon forest that has been cleared for growing soybeans. The clearance of the trees destroys the natural habitats and the species diversity; it releases carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. The large-scale of soybean production also requires a greater pesticide usage, which is harmful for species living nearby and could contaminate the nearby freshwaters. Thus, soy milk produces more gas emissions to the atmosphere compared to other milk alternatives, it is least sustainable compare to other milk alternatives like almond milk.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is produced by stirring almonds with water, then spraining the mixture to remove the solids. It can also be realized by diluting almond butter with water. It has a nutty flavor also has similarities to the dairy milk and soymilk. Ideal for those who are intolerable and allergic to dairy, almond milk has its own share of rich benefits (Kundu, Preeti, 55).

While nutritious, almond milk not as nutritious as dairy milk. Almond milk contains added vitamin D, proteins and calcium to strengthen its nutritional similarities to dairy milk. However, almond milk contains calories fewer than dairy milk at 1.55 grams of proteins to 8.22 grams; the carbohydrate content is fewer as well at 1.52 grams of carbs to 12.18 grams. The Reference Daily Intake, abbreviated as RDI, shows vitamin E content is 49% in almond milk and 0% in dairy milk. In terms of the Reference Daily Intake, almond milk ranks higher than dairy milk in several minerals. Just to note, almond milk is naturally laden with a variety of vitamins and minerals. However, just like soy milk, the phytic acid in almonds inhibits the absorption of zinc, iron and magnesium. It is also not suitable as a substitute for breastmilk because it is lacking in many nutrients.

Because of its low-calorie characteristic, almond milk is a good milk alternative for those looking to control their weight. Sugar-free almond milk is also a good choice for diabetics and people who are on a low-carb diet because it contains only 0.6% of carbs as opposed to cow milk which has 5% carbs. Studies done by observation show consumption of almond products is linked to the reduced risk of heart disease. Consuming 66 grams of almond product including almond milk, daily for six weeks can reduceLDL cholesterol by 6% and reduces triglycerides by 14%. These changes in blood lipid profiles are very significant in heart health.

Although almond milk seems like a great milk alternative, it requires a large amount of freshwater to grow almonds each year. It is estimated that one almond tree utilizes approximately a gallon of water to grow a single almond. However, despite the intensive usage of freshwater, almond milk gives off the lowest gas emission to the environment compare to other milk alternatives. Almond milk is the only tree-based milk alternative, its leaves consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Thus, in greenhouse gas aspect, almond milk is the most sustainable milk alternative for the environment.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is one of the few milk alternatives. Oat milk is plant derived and comes from oat grains. Oat milk is derived by mixing the oat grains and blending them in water then straining them through cheesecloth. Naturally oat milk isn’t as nutritious as whole grain oat. Nevertheless, oat milk is enriched with minerals and nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A and D, iron and potassium. Oat milk is unique in the sense that it is free from allergens that are mainly found in dairy milk. Oat milk is favourable to people who have dietary restrictions. A cup of 240 ml of unsweetened oat milk contains about 120 calories, 3 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, 16 grams of carbs, vitamin b12, vitamin A, potassium and iron minerals (Hoeger, W. & Hoeger, S.,  2014). Oat milk has little gas emission since about 200ml glass of oat milk is responsible for about 0.18kg of carbon dioxide which is less as compared to the amount produced while making dairy milk. Oat does not require a lot of water to grow hence save on the amount of water consumed in the production of oats. In terms of the size of land required to produce oats, oats uses about 80% less land as compared to dairy milk requirements.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is made from rice. Rice milk that is meant for commercial purposes is typically made from brown rice or brown rice syrup. Rice milk is mostly sweetened using sugar or common flavors such as vanilla. Rice milk is made by first cooking the rice then later blending the cooked rice with water. The mixture is then strained using a nut milk bag, cheesecloth or a napkin. For each 100grams of rice milk it contains about 47 calories, 1gram of fat, 9 grams of carbs, 0.3 grams of protein, vitamin A, C and D (, 2020). It also contains minerals such as sodium and potassium. Although rice milk is ubiquitous and cheap, it is the most available milk alternative. The down side of rice milk is that it has less nutritional benefits as compared to the other milk alternatives. Rice has a negative environmental impact since the plant is a water hog plant. Though it does not consume as much as it takes to produce dairy milk it consume more water as compared to the other milk alternatives. It also produces more greenhouse gases as compared to the other plant milk alternatives.

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is made from whole hemp seeds and is known to be rich in healthy fats, proteins and vital minerals. Hemp milk is made from the seeds and water and the mixture is sieved. Hemp milk is also known for the fact it lacks lactose, gluten and soy which makes it favorable to people with dietary issues. Hemp milk contains 83 calories, 1.3 grams of carbs, 4.7 grams of protein, 7.5 grams of fat and minerals such as iron and calcium (Pramaullayko, 2019). Most of the fats in the hem milk are unsaturated. Compared to dairy milk, Hemp milk has fewer calories, less proteins and carbs which are well balance for a person’s dietary requirements. Hemp milk is one of the best plant dairy milk alternatives since it has fewer environmental impacts. Hemp is known to have benefits to the soil as well as it has less greenhouse gases emissions. The hemp plant is also one of the favorable dairy milk alternatives since it requires very little pesticides. When you compare the amount of pesticides that is require to produce dairy feeds and pesticides used on dairy animals it is substantially high as compared to the amount used on the hemp plant.

Environmental Impacts - Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Cow's Milk

The production of cow's milk needs large amounts of resources to be expended. Cows need to be fed, and a full hectare of grazing land is needed for every two cows [5]. On top of that, a single dairy cow requires over five kWh of electricity every week in order to support water heating and milk cooling in the cow milk production process[6]. This means that the electricity cost of managing 40 dairy cows is approximately equal to an entire U.S. home [7]. Massive amounts of fertilizer is also expended to produce non-organic milk which consumes energy and robs the ground of nutrients that could otherwise be used for other forms of agriculture or landscape [6]. Additionally, dairy farms create major externalities in the form of environmental damage. It is estimated that dairy cows emit 330 grams of methane daily [8]. It is important to consider that compared to carbon dioxide, methane is more potent in trapping heat. In a five year time frame, methane is able to trap almost 100 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (one green planet article).

Visualization of the different environmental impacts of milk.

Milk Alternatives

Research has shown that dairy milk has a significantly higher environmental footprint than milk alternatives [9]. For example, producing coconut milk, pea protein milk, and hemp milk requires a relatively low amount of water compared to dairy milk [10]. Rice milk and soy milk are more environmentally damaging compared other milk alternatives, however they are more eco-friendly than cow milk. Any milk alternative produces at least three times less greenhouse gas emissions [11]. Furthermore, there are efforts being made to make rice and soy production more eco-friendly [10].

Overall, milk alternatives are more environmentally friendly than cow milk. However, cow milk is still a staple in many North American households despite a shift in demand of milk towards milk alternatives.

Case Study - Canada

Global milk consumption and production rates in 2013.

Although there is a steady increase in the production of milk worldwide, in Canada, a decrease in milk consumption can be observed. This decline in consumption is largely in part due to the rising number of people who choose to live vegetarian and/or vegan lifestyles[12]. The largest component of the dairy market is consisting of liquid milk which is consistently rising at a steady state. In considering milk production at a global scale, the European Union (EU) was the number one producer of cows milk in 2019 with the manufacturing of 522 million metric tons[13]. This rate had increased by 25 metric tons since the year 2015. In order to produce this considerable amount of milk, 23 million dairy cows were used.


Accordingly, the most sustainable milk alternative option is almond milk because

[You should conclude your Wiki paper by summarizing the topic, or some aspect of the topic, and if possible, state a policy or other type of recommendation.]


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  7. "What is a kilowatt-hour (kwh) and what can it power?". Electricity Plans. 
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