From almond milk to oat milk, plant-based milks have been on-trend for years, but these dairy alternatives are more than a passing phase. Many people rely on plant-based milks for their own health. About 65 percent of the global human population is lactose intolerant, while others suffer from milk allergies. Whether you don’t like to suffer tummy grumbles or just want to explore other options, here are some tips for plant-based milks and navigating a dairy-free lifestyle.
Is Almond Milk Bad for the Environment?
Almond milk is believed to be bad for the environment because of the amount of water and land used in addition to the amount of carbon dioxide produced in growing almonds. We found some interesting statistics that can help you gauge the environmental impact of almond milk.
1. Water Usage
It takes about 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond.11 However, almond milk is only made up of about 2% almonds.12 Because of this, the amount of water used in the production of 200 mL of almond milk is about half of the amount of water used to produce 200 mL of cow's milk.
2. Land Usage
The amount of land used in producing 200 mL of almond milk is about 1/9 the amount used in an equivalent amount of cow's milk.
3. Carbon Dioxide Production
Almond milk has the lowest amount of CO2 produced per 200 mL compared to cow's milk as well as other milk alternatives.
Overall, almond milk appears to be better for the environment than cow's milk. Soy and oat milk produce slightly more CO2 but use substantially less water. Knowing this information will help you choose the milk with the least environmental impact.
Why Go Dairy-Free?
People may choose to omit dairy from their diets for a variety of reasons, from medical to ethical.
Affecting a vast majority of the global population, lactose intolerance is one of the most common reasons that people abstain from dairy products. Lactose intolerance is characterized by a deficiency in the enzyme lactase. Lactase is the chemical responsible for breaking down lactose, the main sugar found in dairy.
Without lactase, the body is unable to properly digest dairy products, so consuming anything containing dairy may result in a variety of symptoms, including:
- Gas and bloating
- Abdominal cramps
- Sometimes vomiting
While lactose intolerance, also known as lactose malabsorption, is relatively harmless, its symptoms can be uncomfortable and disrupt your everyday activities. There currently is no cure for lactose intolerance since the body cannot be made to create more lactase enzyme.1 One option for lactose-intolerant individuals is avoidance of lactose-containing foods. Another option is to consume dairy products that do not contain lactose such as Lactaid® milk.
One final option for lactose intolerant individuals is to take digestive enzyme supplements containing lactase. Lactase helps break down lactose so that your body can absorb the milk sugars without gastrointestinal problems.
Milk allergies are distinct from lactose intolerance. While the latter is caused by a deficiency in lactase, milk allergies are an abnormal immune response to dairy products. Milk allergies are most common with cow’s milk, but they can apply to any milk from any mammal.
Normally when you drink milk, your body understands that it is a food and treats it as such. When your immune system begins to identify certain substances as foreign and/or harmful it develops an allergic reaction to it. The two main proteins responsible for milk allergies are casein and whey.
The abnormal immune response causes the release of antibodies, histamines, and other chemicals that contribute to a variety of symptoms. Immediate signs and symptoms may include:
- Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath
- Itching sensation around the mouth and lips
- Swelling in the mouth, tongue, or throat
Unlike lactose intolerance, milk allergies can potentially be life-threatening as they may cause anaphylaxis, which can cause your airways to constrict and inhibit your breathing.2
Many people who choose to avoid dairy in their diets don’t have any health reason. Vegans choose to omit all animal products (including dairy) from their diets for a variety of reasons.3 Others may choose to eliminate dairy out of environmental concerns. Dairy cows produce a great deal of methane, which stays in the atmosphere up to 23 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. Conventional dairy farms also deplete nutrients from the soil and produce large quantities of fertilizer.4 Dairy farms also require vast amounts of water, not only for their cows, but to clean, operate, and cool off machinery.5
On a personal level, even if you aren’t lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy products, milk presents some benefits, but also some negative side effects. For example, milk is best known for having a high calcium content combined with a healthy amount of protein. A cup of milk generally has about 250 to 350 mg of calcium. Milk is also one of the most common dietary sources for vitamin D.6
At the same time, the growing obesity epidemic has shifted its attention to the role of sugar in diets. Milk contains the natural sugar lactose. A cup of whole milk contains about 11 grams of sugar on average. Studies on the role of dairy products and lactose in weight gain still remain inconsistent, but sugars in liquid form are more easily absorbed in the body.7
Some proteins in milk, like IGF-1 (an insulin-like growth factor), have been shown to contribute to acne lesions.8
Common Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives
Whether you have an allergy or just want to live a more environmentally conscious, you can give up on dairy without giving up on milk. The growing concerns with dairy milk has led to the development of plant-based alternatives that can provide new nutritional benefits without the potential effects of dairy.9
Soy milk is one of the most common dairy-free alternatives. If you want more protein, soy milk is the way to go. It offers one of the richest sources of protein at about 7 to 12 grams per cup. Soy milk also contains all your essential amino acids.10 In terms of nutrition, soy milk is also the closest to cow’s milk. Many brands fortify their soy milk with vitamins D and B12.
Some brands use whole soybeans, while others use soybean isolates, which are highly processed. Try to go for less processed brands that use organic soybeans.
However, soy is one of the eight most common allergens, meaning you should definitely avoid soy milk if you have a soy allergy.
Made from soaked almonds, almond milk is a rich source of vitamin E, which offers antioxidant properties and may help the brain, blood and skin. Almond milk is also estimated to have more than 50 percent more calcium per cup than cow’s milk.
While it does have a high concentration of calcium, almond milk is relatively low in protein, offering less than one gram of protein per cup. Commercial almond milks also tend to be fairly watered down, containing only 2 percent of almond.
One of the biggest concerns with almond milk is its potential negative impact on the environment. Some estimates suggest that it takes up to 920 gallons of water to produce just one gallon of almond milk, which can be comparable to the amount of water used for cow’s milk.9
Cashew milk is another nut-based milk that is a good alternative for those who don’t like the taste of almond milk. Cashews are naturally high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, along with compounds like lutein and zeaxanthin, which may benefit your eye health. Cashews also take less water to grow than almonds, and cashew milk generally has fewer calories than other alternative milks. However, if you need protein, you may want to look elsewhere. Cashew milk is not particularly high in protein.
Hemp is naturally high in calcium, which means it does not require calcium fortification the way that other alternative milks do. Hemp is also one of the only plant-based complete proteins, meaning it contains all of your essential amino acids and is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp milk is high in iron, zinc, and magnesium, and hemp itself is a highly sustainable plant. It grows fast, requires relatively little water, and is resistant to most plant-based diseases. However, some manufacturers may add artificial thickeners and flavoring agents to their hemp milk, so be aware and check the label.
Although rice milk is non-allergenic, it does not actually present much in terms of nutritional value. Rice is naturally fairly high on the glycemic index, meaning that it can cause a sudden spike in blood sugar. Rice milk is high in calories, most of which come from carbohydrates. Some brands add a great deal of sugar. Rice milk is also generally watery and thin in consistency, making it difficult for use in cooking.
Oats are naturally high in soluble fiber. Dietary fiber refers to plant material that has been found to be good for the heart, blood sugar, and general digestive health. Oat milk also tends to have a more pleasant taste and consistency than other plant-based milks.
However, oat milk is generally high in carbohydrates, and it can be difficult to find low-sugar oat milk. Brands tend to also use oils and gums to enhance the texture of oat milk.
Flaxseed is naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids. As flax is not within the top eight allergens, flax milk makes a good option for those unable to consume lactose, soy, or nuts. Flax milk is unfortunately low in protein. Protein-rich varieties usually come from added pea protein. The biggest obstacle tends to be the taste. Flaxseed’s poor flavor usually means that flax milk usually contains a variety of flavors, though many brands do use natural flavors.
Quinoa milk offers more protein and dietary fiber than most other grains. Quinoa is also naturally gluten-free and contains all the essential amino acids, along with high levels of zinc, iron, and magnesium. While quinoa is highly nutritious, quinoa milk tends to contain very little actual quinoa, making its nutritional value highly questionable.
Tips for a Dairy-Free Lifestyle
Along with switching to a dairy-free milk, you can take other steps to make sure you live a happy, healthy dairy-free life.
Always Check the Label
Get into the habit of checking the labels for any packaged foods that you buy. Dairy is fairly ubiquitous and can sneak into a variety of unexpected foods, from snacks to baked goods.
Make the Right Swaps
If you want to go dairy free you can still eat many of the same foods that you’ve always eaten, but you may have to make some changes:
- For smoothies and general sipping, use soy or almond milk. Replace yogurt with nut butter or almond butter for creaminess.
- Some breads and pastries contain milk so be sure to check the label.
- While alternate cheeses exist, they may not taste as natural as avocado or hummus.
- Many brands have ice creams made from alternative milks, usually almond or coconut milk. You can also eat sorbet instead.
Get the Right Nutrition
Without cow’s milk in your life, you will have to look elsewhere for essential nutrients normally found in milk. Calcium is one of the most prominent minerals in milk, and it is vital to healthy bones and teeth. If you’re not getting calcium from milk, make sure you get it through other sources. Calcium is naturally found in kale, broccoli, and other leafy vegetables. Most packaged foods, including cereal, bread, and juice, are also fortified with calcium.
Milk is also a good source of vitamin D, which plays a role in the metabolism and absorption of calcium, ensuring healthy bones. Your body naturally produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight, but if you don’t get much sun, many foods fortified with calcium are also fortified with vitamin D.
Even with dairy substitutes and alternatives, keep an eye on the label, and beware of excess sugar, flavorings, and other additives.
Switching to a plant-based milk and foregoing dairy in your diet can have a positive impact on your health, especially if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to milk. Make the right choices to ensure that you get the nutrition that you need without dairy products.