Milking the issue: What is the best milk substitute?

Milk substitutes get a lot of flak — they are hypocritical, they are unhealthy, they are bad for the planet, they use too much water, they shouldn’t be called milks, and so on. In trying to sort wheat from chaff, I have found that, largely, these criticisms are unfounded, rooted in misunderstanding and/or peddled by dairy lobbyists. But scare stories stick in the mind, and often require unwedging. The question of ‘what is the best milk substitute’ is buried under mindless prejudices.

Many of the shots fired masquerade as legitimate, informed concerns, be they medical, ecological or nutritional. However, many of them require little research to dislodge.

So, what is the best milk substitute?

Soy milk

Criticisms of soy include the causation of hormonal misbalance, or a ‘feminising’ effect on men (untrue / incomprehensively tested / tested on animals, rather than humans). There was one guy who reported increased oestrogen levels, and breast tenderness, but he was drinking six pints of soy milk a day: too much, as they say, of a good thing.

Soy is also panned for its monoculturism. Production has increased fifteen-fold since the 1950s, and is mostly limited to the United States, Brazil and Argentina. It is true that soy accounts for the second largest portion of deforestation worldwide — after cattle ranching. Plantations are ploughed into land which, for generations, has been used for subsistence farming. The forest, rugged yet fragile, loses its balance. More than 200 tribes, comprising 650,000 Brazilian Indians, are threatened by the expansion of agricultural and grazing (read: soy and ranching) land. Jaguars are dying.

So, is soy bad? Well, on such grand scales, yes. But 70–75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. 32 million acres of South American soy-growing land feeds Europe’s meat and dairy industries — equivalent to three Switzerlands. So with ranching in the top position, and soy, three quarters of which is converted into animal feed, in second place, any criticism of soy monocultural deforestation is more justly levelled at the meat industry (having been multiplied, by three or more).

what is the best milk substitute
Image by bigfatcat from Pixabay 

Almond milk

Almond milk has come under fire too, for its allegedly astronomical levels of water wastage — a wave of criticism set off by a dietary consultant of the diary industry, albeit a lactose-free arm.

A widely shared graphic, cited by the BBC, shows almond milk water use to be substantially higher than that of oat, soy or rice milks. Almonds are one of the most water-intensive crops in California, requiring approximately 1 gallon per almond. However, dairy milk water use is still nearly twice as high.

The results are derived from a University of Oxford study. Taking into account 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, the study finds that ‘the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins’, almost across the board. (It shows as much as 105kg of CO2 is produced per 100g of beef protein, compared to 3.5kg of CO2 per 100g of tofu protein) The Guardian’s environment editor talks about this too.

“Save the bees; drink dairy.” During the winter of 2018–19, an estimated 50 billion bees were ‘wiped out’ during the Californian almond harvest. But the news articles and opinion pieces which actually investigate this typically point to industrialised farming methods as the primary culprit, not the fact of almond consumption — nor, indeed, almond milk production.

what is the best milk substitute
Image by jennyleenaguirre from Pixabay

A typical line runs as follows:

If you’ve given up dairy in a quest to be a little kinder to the planet, we’ve got bad news. Your almond milk latte obsession may be doing more harm than good.


Well, no it’s not, because it’s not dairy, which is doing more harm than good, and more harm than almonds — much more. Waves of bandwagon/shifting-the-blame criticism like this prompt such high-grade opinion-havers as Piers Morgan to tweet things like “the mass slaughter of billions of bees is on YOU vegans [and] vegetarians,” which is super intelligent, because only 1/25 of almonds are actually used to make almond milk (my estimate, calculations below).

[The United States produces 2 million tonnes of almonds per year. Global almond milk sales for 2018 were just under $6 billion. Divide this by a conservatively low retail cost per litre ($1.50) = 4 billion litres, consisting of 98% non-almond ingredients (water, vitamins, salt, oil, etc.). My own shaky maths gives a total of 80 million kg (or 80,000 tonnes) total mass of almonds used to produce almond milk per year (those pesky vegans are so thirsty), out of total almond production of 2 million tonnes (in the US alone), accounting for just 4% of almonds produced.]

“Your ‘animal ethics’ don’t extend to the little guys,” Piers adds. And yours, apparently, don’t extend to one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet.

Drinking the milk of a cow does nothing to salvage the fate of the bees. Plus, if the lives and livelihoods of droves of bees are of value, why then should the mass slaughter of larger mammals be ignored? Per litre, almond milk accounts for a quarter of the carbon emissions of dairy milk. Any criticism aimed at the almond industry, its affiliates and associates, should surely be multiplied and redirected at dairy.

Oat, Cashew, Hazelnut & Rice milks

As far as I can tell, basically no one has beef with oats. The Oatly brand got a bit of stick for selling shares to China Resources, and running an ad campaign tagged with a line reminiscent of a ‘quit drinking’ slogan, but besides that it’s actually hard to find any criticism online. Drink away.

The cashew industry certainly presents an ethical dilemma, but again, it has nothing to do with the fact of cashews being processed into a milk substitute.

In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report exposed the conditions in Vietnamese forced-labour camps, in which cashew nuts were being processed. Fortunately, this particular punitive slavery practice has been put to an end. Still, cashews are harvested and processed manually, which takes several steps. Exposure to the caustic oils contained within layers of cashew shell causes painful burns and lung irritation, and many workers choose not to wear gloves, in favour of unconstrained handiwork.

Turkey produces and exports three quarters of the world’s hazelnuts, 30% of which are sold to Germany. Productivity is affected by disease and climate. No highlighted concerns.

Rice milk substitute is fine, as long as you don’t drink nothing other than rice milk, while also eating nothing other than rice. Criticisms are hard to find. Plus side: if you have a nut allergy, you can still drink this (because it doesn’t contain nuts).

Basically, it seems, cashew, hazelnut and rice milks don’t offend anyone like Piers Morgan because they are not widespread and popular enough to challenge the status quo. People get tizzy and amplify concerns over soy and almond milks because they are disrupting the dairy-ruled equilibrium, and because, as a rule, people click on headlines which are provocative and reactionary.

In an era where environmental consciousness is entering the mainstream, we owe it to ourselves to sit on the right side of the fence. Plant-based milk substitutes are no longer the domain of the hip, nor do they belong to alternative communities. They have firmly wedged themselves into everyday life. Sacrifices no longer have to be made. Pathos, or ‘loving animals’, is no longer required to make the transition. People are starving, or obese, or sick; the world is burning, sinking and melting; vegans, like non-alcoholics, or those who have quit smoking, are often healthier and happier than meat-eaters; Logos wins outright. It is simply more sensible.

What you can do if you’re feeling super groovy

Make your own milk — the best milk substitute is a homemade milk substitute (that ancient adage). Almond, oat, soy, even cashew and hazelnut (though these last two are costly). Source your products as locally as possible, control the variables, drink at your leisure.

Buy organic, and/or local. No pesticides, less water, less guilt.

Consider the options. Basically any milk is better than cow’s milk. Remember, mammals are only supposed to drink animal milk while they are suckling. From a bunch of perspectives, it makes much more sense to make opaque white protein-filled liquids from plants instead. Try all of them, see which you like best.

In a nutshell, then:
To minimise CO2 emissions, drink almond.
To minimise land use, drink rice.
To minimise water use, drink soy.

On the other hand, if you want to increase the risk of heart diseaseweakened bonesprostate cancer, while contributing more generously to deforestation, habitat loss, global carbon emissions and water usage, while also minimising the number of times you are insulted by Piers Morgan,

…drink cow.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to share.
Pea milk article coming soon.

Let cows live as cows, please.


This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more vegan/plant-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s