Updated: Jan 18, 2022
In the past 10 years, the milk aisle at the grocery store has changed pretty drastically. In 2017, dairy substitutes officially earned “trend” status. At this time, almond milk had already piqued consumer interest, with the phrase, “is almond milk healthy” being searched 400% more frequently than in 2016. And since 2017, dairy milk has had to make space for various non-dairy alternatives including soy milk (dropping in popularity now), almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, rice milk, cashew milk, and macadamia milk. Cow milk products and brands are now competing against well-branded substitutes that offer new tastes and a better sustainability profile. (And can we talk about the non-dairy coffee creamer selection? So many options and my coffee has never tasted better.)
Popularity for these items does not seem to be slowing down. According to Google Trends, search results for ‘almond milk’ and ‘coconut milk’ reached a new high in 2020.
Surely, part of the attraction for these non-dairy choices is due to dietary restrictions. But there are other reasons. Notably, 82% of those who buy non-dairy milk alternatives do so because they like the taste. And perhaps the most interesting figure is that over half of dairy substitute consumers (56%) are motivated to purchase due to environmental concerns.
In a 2018 study by Poore & Nemecek, the environmental impact of dairy and non-dairy milk was analyzed by three markers: land use, water use and level of greenhouse gas emissions. Five different types of milk were studied: dairy, rice, soy, oat and almond. Almond milk requires more water than oat and soy milk. Rice milk uses slightly less land to produce than other options but needs more water than soy and oat milk. Almond milk needs more water than rice milk but slightly less land than soy and oat milk. All four non-dairy milk types included in the study emit around the same amount of CO2.
However, none of these alternatives use as many resources and emit as much greenhouse gasses as traditional dairy milk. The difference is most apparent when comparing land and water usage. In order to produce one glass of dairy milk every day for one year, you need 7,000 square feet of land (approximately two tennis courts of space). You’d also need ten times the amount of water it takes to produce oat milk.
It is also important to consider that the production location can have an impact on the environment. Latin America and the Caribbean carry the biggest burden, accounting for more than the global average of CO2 emissions. According to the same Poore & Nemecek 2018 study, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa emit more than the global average of CO2. This finding was measured based on farming emissions, transportation, packing, processing, and deforestation due to sustaining livestock.
So which non-dairy option is the best for the environment? Seems like it’s whichever your taste buds prefer. I would argue that someone who prefers almond milk does not switch to oat milk just because of the environmental footprint. As long as you avoid dairy, you’re doing right by the environment. Next time you’re at the grocery store, stop for a moment and reflect on your cart. What items do I like and how were they sourced? What brands am I supporting? Slowly but surely, if we continue to ask ourselves these questions, we can make transformative changes to the way we shop.