Got (non-dairy) milk? What to think about when choosing a plant-based milk
When deciding whether to stop drinking dairy milk, there are more things to consider than just the well-being of cows.
I was never a big milk person. Growing up, I could stomach it just enough to prevent my cereal from becoming a chocking hazard. The thought of a tall, cold glass of milk would make me gag as a child, and I never really saw the appeal in ruining a perfectly good cookie by dunking it into beverage that could supposedly leave a ‘milk mustache’ above one’s top lip.
Although my tolerance for milk has improved with age, our society’s attachment to cow’s milk has began to wane. Thanks to more information on our environment and our bodies, many people have decided to turn away from dairy to find milk alternatives. Over the past few years, non-dairy milks have become more popular and choosing oat milk over semi-skimmed for your morning coffee is the new norm.
Why the switch?
People switch from dairy to plant milk for various reasons, which are often individual to them: lactose intolerance, veganism, health concerns etc. Despite several claims on the health benefits of cow’s milk, more research suggests that consuming dairy might not be as beneficial to one’s health as previously thought.
I’m sure that many of us have been told that milk has the calcium we need for strong bones. However, it turns out that dairy might not be the best source of calcium — if it was the countries in the world with the highest dairy consumption would not also be world leaders in rates of osteoporosis.
A few years ago, if you decided to move away from cow’s milk for diet, health or simply taste reasons, you may have been limited in options. More recently, however, a wider selection of non-dairy milks are available at your local grocery stores and cafes. Research shows that spending on these alternative milks has risen while consumption of cow’s milk has dropped. Popular alternatives include soy, almond, oat and coconut, which all have pros and cons depending on their use and what your nutritional needs are.
There are of course big ethical reasons to make the switch as well. Animal rights activists, sustainability experts, and the public have become increasingly vocal of their concerns regarding the industrialization of dairy farms; citing poor animal welfare and the environmental impact of dairy farming including air pollution, and water usage and contamination. Thanks to their lower impact on the environment and the lack of animals to potentially exploit, plant milks have seemingly become an ideal alternative option.
What to consider when choosing a non-dairy milk
Plant-based milks are not made equal and there are a lot of things to consider when finding the right one for you. Depending on the flavor, nutrition, cost, allergies, and availability, your individual preferences and needs will determine which milk will work best. But there’s more to making milk than soaking some nuts in water. Non-dairy milk is a billion dollar industry and like all big industries it has an impact on the communities and eco-systems that sustains it.
When finding the right milk, you might want to consider some of the following:
Look into the company behind the brand. Depending on your reasonings for going non-dairy, you might want to do a bit of research into the company making the plant-based milk. Some also make dairy products, and if you’re vegan or don’t want to support the production of dairy, then you may not want to support them. There are also some brands who have been found to have questionable practices (like forcing monkeys to pick coconuts) and poor conditions for workers.
In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report exposed the severe conditions of the cashew processing industry in Vietnam. Some patients within the country’s drug therapy camps were forced to be laborers, processing cashews by hand and being subject to electroshock and solitary confinement if they refused.
Due to the the nuts’ uneven and awkward shape, shelling was done by hand which made the work hazardous as cashew resins and dust can burn the skin, and can also irritate the lungs. Human Rights Watch found that protective gear was often not provided and workers were even charged for gloves and masks.
Thanks to this report and media attention, backlash ensued. Human rights groups and the large retailers that were purchasing these cashews (most located in Europe and North America) demanded the inhumane practices come to an end. Unfortunately, due to a lack in transparency and traceability within the supply chain, it’s difficult to know for sure whether your cashew milk (or another nut milk) is the result of humane and fair working conditions. Doing your research and demanding accountability from companies is one step towards ensuring that questionable and unsafe practices are eliminated.
Consider water consumption in the production process. It takes a lot of water to make dairy milk and factoring in the amount needed to feed and raise cows, it takes 976 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. Surprisingly, almond milk not too far behind at 920 gallons of water to make one gallon.
Currently, 82 percent of the world’s almonds come from California — the only state in the US that produces almonds commercially. California is also known for its water crisis. While demand for water is high and wildfires are sweeping across the northern part of the state, almond trees account for almost 10 percent of California’s annual agricultural water use — which is more than what the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year.
While drinking almond milk means that calves won’t be separated from their mothers within days of being born, it’s also important to consider the impact of large-scale agriculture on the local environment. If an industry has grown to the point of being unsustainable, should we not prioritize restoring balance to the local environment over making a profit? Water is essential not only for growing almonds but also to sustain communities, and during a crisis people should always be prioritized over a glass of milk.
Find out if farmers are being compensated fairly and whether there are any fair trade options. Depending on the milk, the people farming the product may not be earning a fair wage. Just because a product is popular and prices increase in the retail sector, does not necessarily equate to a higher wage for farmers.
In countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines, coconut farmers often grow mono-crops, making them susceptible to environmental change. It’s common for farmers to sell their product to middlemen, who then resell them for 50 percent more to processing factories. According to Fair Trade USA, farmers receive about $0.12 — $0.25 per nut, while the average serving of coconut water from one nut sells for $1.50 in the U.S.
The Asian Pacific Coconut Community reports that coconut farms across Asia are experiencing very little growth and, in some cases, are getting smaller as farmers are forced to sell off land in order to switch to more profitable crops like palm. By ensuring your preferred brand of non-dairy milk subscribes to a fair trade ethos (even if the fair trade label isn’t on the packaging), you can be assured that everyone in the supply chain is benefiting from a more equitable and sustainable business.
There is no perfect choice when it comes to milk. There are what seem like endless options of plant-based milks with each one having their own benefits and detriments to consumers, producers and the environment. Whether you like flax, rice, one of the various nuts, hemp, oat or even pea there are important health, environmental and social impact questions to be asked.
For those who can’t yet part with dairy, why not look into supporting sustainable dairy farms which apply methods that are sustainable for the well-being of people, animals and the planet — they do exist.
It’s great to have options, but as always it’s important to be an informed consumer and make choices that not only benefit us, but the communities beyond our own.