Plant-based alternatives to dietary staples are becoming increasingly commonplace all over the world. This is due not only to concerns around the inhumane conditions of factory farms and our physical health, but the severe impact that modern animal farming practices have on our environment too.
The meat and dairy industries are responsible for a staggering amount of carbon emissions, pollution, and the consumption of limited resources like water and energy. The research is getting harder and harder for the average consumer to ignore, which has led to a massive shift in the dietary behavior of many folks.
As the demand increases, vegan cafés and restaurants are popping up on every street corner. At the same time, every coffee shop you visit has at least one milk alternative for folk who still value their daily caffeine boost, but can’t quite face the idea of black coffee.
While milk alternatives such as almond and soy milk may be heavier on your bank account, the physical health and environmental benefits may well be worth the extra expenditure.
Why Do People Drink Cow’s Milk?
Cow’s milk has been a staple in the average westerner’s diet for generations. Not only does it taste great in coffee, but it also contains a host of nutrients that are vital for our health and survival. A primary selling point of cow’s milk used to be its high calcium content, although recent studies have determined that only around 30% of the calcium in milk actually gets absorbed.
Health Risks of Cow’s Milk
Despite its popularity, health officials recognize cow’s milk and other dairy products as one of the primary contributors to deadly lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer. This is predominantly due to the high content of saturated fats present in most dairy products.
Lactose intolerance is another major factor when considering how much dairy we consume as a society. Newborn babies and children have a natural ability to produce lactase—the hormone that breaks down lactose in breast milk and cow’s milk. What most people don’t realize, however, is that this ability fades as we age, leading to greater lactose sensitivity.
What Are the Alternatives?
Considering the health and environmental concerns surrounding cow’s milk, it’s no mystery why there has been such an uptick in production of milk alternatives. However, choosing the right product to replace cow’s milk can be tricky.
Some milk substitutes come with their own host of complications, which are worth keeping in mind before making a decision.
Almond milk has become a favorite among people who follow vegan diets. This milk substitute is from a mixture of finely ground almonds and filtered water. It has a reputation for being environmentally friendly as well as healthy. But there reasons to think twice before making the switch.
Almonds are an incredibly water-intensive crop, taking approximately 55 liters to grow just 16 almonds. Many have argued that the nutritional benefits of almond milk don’t justify the vast amounts of water and arable land it takes to produce enough almonds to keep up with its ever-growing popularity.
On the positive side, unsweetened almond milk contains far fewer calories than cow’s milk, as well as much less fat. Mass produced almond milk generally also has added vitamins and calcium to replicate the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk without the saturated fat and lactose.
Soy milk is an excellent candidate for people seeking an alternative to cow’s milk. It’s generally the cheapest plant-based milk available—it’s high in protein, and low in saturated fat. Soybeans and filtered water are the primary constituents of soy milk, although mass produced soy milk is likely to contain thickeners and preservatives.
Like almond milk, most soy milk contains added nutrients like calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D. It’s also naturally rich in potassium. While higher in calories than almond milk, soy milk is also much richer in protein and healthy fats.
Some have lingering concerns about the isoflavones present in soy, whose effects on human hormones and development of disease are still in question. Overall, nutrition experts generally agree that soy milk is a nutrient-dense and safe alternative to cow’s milk that is also far less taxing on the environment.
While soy production is responsible for a fair amount of deforestation—particularly in South America—it’s still regarded as far less environmentally damaging than dairy farming. Switching to plant-based alternatives wherever possible is one of the most effective ways to decrease your carbon footprint.
Rice milk is a popular milk alternative for people who suffer from allergies to soy, nuts, and/or lactose. Its main ingredients are milled rice and water, although like other plant-based milks, it generally contains thickeners and preservatives.
Rice milk is not an ideal choice for anyone with sugar-related disorders such as insulin resistance or diabetes, as it contains an extraordinarily high amount of carbohydrates when compared to other plant-based milks. It also has a high calorie content and very little protein.
Consuming large amounts of rice or rice-based products may also lead to an accumulation of inorganic arsenic in the system which can be dangerous, particularly for young children and pregnant women.
Choosing the Right Alternative
When closely examined, it’s apparent that no milk or milk alternative is ideal in every way. When considering environmental impact, it’s wise to reduce your consumption of milk products as much as possible, especially cow’s milk. When choosing the right milk product for your diet and type of lifestyle, you must take into consideration any allergies or disorders you may have.
Soy milk is generally the best choice for both bodily and environmental health. However, this may not be the case for everyone. It’s best to experiment with the various options available to determine which milk alternative suits your body’s needs and meets your ethical requirements.