How sustainable and healthy are plant-based milk substitutes really?

Not using animal products is considered environmentally friendly and healthy, but is that true? Here is the life cycle assessment of milk alternatives in comparison

Sustainable milk substitute

Author: Ilka Bröskamp

Soy, almond, oat, rice, cashew milk: the choice of plant-based substitutes for milk is huge, thanks to its growing popularity. While most companies market their milk substitute products as environmentally friendly alternatives, it is usually difficult to verify this promise.

The life cycle assessment of products as a substitute for milk depends on many factors

Current climate debates prove: The topic of sustainability is complex and solutions are rarely simple. This applies above all also to the discussion about milk and its supposedly climate-friendly substitute products.

Because if you want to check the ecological footprint of a product, many different factors play a decisive role. The emission of environmentally harmful greenhouse gases, the consumption of water and cultivation area, leaking chemicals or the generation of waste. All parts of the production, from the cultivation of the raw materials to the processing to the transport. These factors must therefore be weighed in terms of their ecological advantages and disadvantages and incorporated into the assessment.

Different manufacturing processes make the comparison difficult

Even if you initially focus on one milk alternative, a comparison is not always easy. As diverse as the range of manufacturers is, the production processes for plant-based milk substitutes vary just as much. In addition, other important factors such as nutritional values ​​and the effects on our health are not even taken into account, yet.

With all of this in mind, here's a look at a selection of popular plant-based milk substitutes.

Read here which milk alternatives are particularly good for our environment and your health:

1. Soy milk

Soy milk is the mother of milk alternatives. An absolute bestseller in Europe. Taste, consistency and nutritional value come very close to regular cow's milk. Soybeans originate in China. But now they are grown all over the world.

In theory at least, soy milk should be one of the most sustainable alternatives to conventional milk. The CO2 emissions during production are significantly lower here. However, a lot of land is needed to grow soybeans. In addition to milk, soy is also used to feed animals. The demand for soy is now so high that huge monocultures have emerged which are increasingly destroying parts of the rainforest.

The facts at a glance:

Benefits:

  • lower CO2 emissions (similar to almond milk)
  • significantly less water consumption than, for example, almond milk
  • Soybeans bind nitrogen, making additional nitrogen fertilizers superfluous
  • rich in protein

Disadvantages:

  • Soy cultivation requires a lot of land (significantly more than almonds) and thus faciliate monocultures
  • Although nitrogen fertilizers are not used, phosphorus fertilizers are often used, which place a heavy burden on the ecosystem

At the end...

In terms of taste, texture and nutritional value, soy milk can be a very good choice. When buying, however, you should rely on an organic variant.

2. Almond milk

Almonds are full of healthy nutrients, which makes almond milk a very popular substitute for milk. Unfortunately, their enormous water consumption is often neglected. Around 80% of the world's almond supply comes from sunny California. The average water footprint of just one almond is around twelve liters. Especially in comparison to other plants, this is an extremely large amount. The fact that almonds are grown in arid California, which is threatened by drought, exacerbates this problem.

If you take a closer look at the processing of almonds into milk, you will also find that many of the valuable nutrients are lost here.

The facts at a glance:

Benefits:

  • low CO2 emissions
  • Cultivation doesn't consume a lot of land
  • thanks to valuable nutrients, almonds are very healthy

Disadvantages:

  • enormously high water consumption in an area where this resource is already scarce
  • many nutrients are lost when the almonds are processed into milk

At the end...

In terms of sustainability in particular, almond milk is not the best choice as a substitute for milk. Almond cultivation swallows immense amounts of water in an area where water is already a rare commodity. In terms of health, it is even more worthwhile to consume a few almonds individually. The nutrient density is significantly higher than in almond milk, which is largely made up of water anyway.

3. Oat milk

Oat milk is now ubiquitous on supermarket shelves. Due to its high fiber content, oats are not only nutritious, but also healthy. The production of oat milk is also very easy and resource-saving. Crushed oats are mixed with water and a mixture of natural enzymes. Compared to cow's milk, up to 80% less CO2 emissions are emitted during production, as well as 60% less energy and 80% less land are used.

While oat milk has a higher nutrient density than almond milk, it does not come close to soy milk in this regard. In addition, studies have shown that oats are often heavily contaminated with harmful glyphosate.

The facts at a glance:

Benefits:

  • cultivation and production are particularly resource-efficient
  • high fiber content makes oats nutritious and healthy
  • the taste and texture are particularly popular

Disadvantages:

  • conventionally grown oats are often contaminated with harmful glyphosate

At the end...

In terms of both, ecology and taste, oat milk is one of the best milk alternatives currently available on the market. If you pay attention to organic quality when buying, oat milk is also nutritious and healthy.

Each milk substitute has its own advantages and disadvantages

The milk alternatives presented here are only a part of what is now available in supermarkets. This comparison alone shows that it is difficult to name a clear winner. The issues of sustainability, production and ingredients are too complex. It is worth taking a closer look here. Before buying, consider which product is the best choice for you personally and for the environment.

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