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22 July 2021

Plant milks: what's best for your health and the environment?

Whether you're cutting out or cutting down on dairy, find out which plant-milk alternative is best for you
Olivia Howes
Plant milks

The supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of plant-based milk. Old reliables such as almond, soya and oat are pitted against intriguing newcomers such as hemp and pea.

According to research from The Grocer, 62% of people have bought a plant-based milk before. And, of those, 70% are buying plant-based milks at least once or twice a month.

Many choose non-dairy options for sustainability reasons, as well as health concerns. So what’s really best for the environment, as well best for you?

Cows

Cow's milk

Cow's milk is a really good source of calcium and protein, including all nine essential amino acids.

Whole milk should always be given to children under two, and skimmed milk shouldn’t be given to under fives. After this, the cow's milk you choose is up to you. 

Whole milk has more calories and fat. Choosing semi-skimmed or skimmed milk reduces the fat content without reducing the calcium, protein and most of the vitamins and minerals.

Unfortunately, the production of dairy milk has a significant impact on our environment.

A 2018 study (Poore and Nemecek) found that global production of dairy milk had a carbon footprint three times higher than that of any plant milk. It used nine times more land, and a great deal more water (twice as much as almond milk but 22 times as much as soya milk). When you look at the European dairy industry, those figures are considerably lower, though still significant. 

The study looked at oat, rice, soya and almond milk at a global level.  

Environmental impact of different milks (per litre)

Source: Poore and Nemecek (2018), Science. Additional calculations, J. Poore

It's worth remembering that the data given here are worldwide and European figures, so don’t take account of different national farming systems, some of which may mean impacts vary depending on what country you are in.

For cow's milk we have included mean global figures and European figures, as the cow's milk you buy in the supermarket is very likely to have been produced in the UK. The main ingredient in a plant milk may well have come from further afield.

Nutritional comparison of cow's milk and plant-based milk alternatives

Plant milks labelled as organic can't be fortified, so if you want to make sure your plant milk is a source of calcium and other vitamins and minerals, you'll need to go for the non-organic versions.

And it goes without saying that unsweetened versions will be better for your health.

Nutrional information per 100ml

Milk (brand)
Energy (kcal)
Fat (g)
of which saturates (g)
Protein (g)
Vitamin B12 ()
Calcium (mg)
Iodine (µg)
Cow (Semi-skimmed milk)
47
1.8
1.1
3.6
0.9
120
31
Almond  (Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Original)
24
1.1
<0.1
0.5
0.38
120
-
Almond unsweetened (Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Unsweeetened)
13
1.1
<0.5
0.5
 0.38
120
-
Coconut (Koko Original Coconut Milk)
27
2
1.9
0.2
0.38
120
-
Coconut unsweetened (Koko Unsweetened Coconut Milk)
15
1.3
1.1
0.7
0.38
120
-
Hemp seed(Good Hemp Seed Milk)
26
2.7
0.3
0.1
-
-
-
Oat milk (Oatly Oat Drink)
46
1.5
0.2
1
0.38
120
22.5
Pea (Mighty Pea Original)
39
2
0.3
3.3
0.94
186
31
Pea unsweetened (Mighty Pea Unsweetened)
32
2
0.3
3.3
0.94
186
31
Rice (Rice Dream Original + Calcium Drink)
50
1
0.1
0.1
0.38
120
-
Soya (Alpro Soya Drink)
39
1.8
0.3
3
0.38
120
-
Soya unsweetened (Alpro Soya Unsweetened Drink)
33
1.8
0.3
3.3
0.38
120
-

Table notes: For each type of milk we looked at we've included an original and unsweetened version if both were widely available. 

All of the plant milks, aside from Good Hemp Seed Milk, were also fortified with Vitamin D at 0.75mg per 100ml (1.1µg in Oatly's case). 

Alpro Soya Drink (both sweetened and unsweetened) and Oatly also contain Vitamin B2.

Good Hemp Seed Milk was the only milk we looked at to contain naturally occuring omega-3 and omega-6.

Almonds

Almond milk

Brands: Alpro, Blue Diamond, Almond Breeze, Califia Farms, Innocent, Nutty Bruce, Plenish, Provamel Rude Health

Environmental impact

While the production of almonds scores well for carbon emissions and land use, it's a very water hungry crop. It still only requires two thirds of the amount that cow’s milk does globally, though in Europe cow's milk actually comes out better than almond for water use.

Almond milk has also come under criticism for the detrimental affects on the bees used to pollinate the almond orchards.

The pesticides, harsh conditions and exposure to disease leads to large numbers of bees dying – US commercial beekeepers now expect to lose 30% of their colony to almond production each year.

Summary: Environmentally, it’s not the best choice. Choosing organic may limit the damage to bees caused by pesticides (but will then not be fortified).

What’s it like for your health?

Almond milk is low calorie and low fat. It also contains natural Vitamin E which helps maintain healthy skin and eyes.

Like all plant milks, aside from coconut, it contains a lot less saturated fat than cow’s milk – over five times less.

But almond milk is very low in protein. The unsweetened almond milk we looked at contained less than 0.5g per 100ml compared to dairy’s 3.6g and soya’s 3.3.

Typically, the quantity of almonds found in almond milk is very low – the brand we looked at had only 2% almonds. The largest ingredient is water.

Summary: While a low calorie and low-fat choice, almond milk is not a good nutritional substitute for dairy milk as it is very low in protein. It is a good source of Vitamin E, but you can achieve the same with a handful of almonds, which will also contain a good amount of protein.

Coconut

Coconut milk

Brands: Alpro, Koko, Plenish, Rude Health, UFC Velvet

Environmental impact

Coconut milk can’t be directly compared here as Poore and Nemecek didn’t assess it in their study. However, coconut milk would likely do pretty well on some measures as coconut trees require very little water and don’t take up much land.

Unfortunately, there are other environmental negatives, largely because coconuts only grow in tropical environments. The worldwide demand for coconuts has led to them being grown in deforested tropical areas, harming biodiversity and exploiting poor communities.

If you do choose coconut milk, looking for Fairtrade certification will help to protect poor coconut farmers from low and volatile prices.

One of the brands we looked at, Koko, has a ‘monkey statement’ on its website promising that no animals are used to harvest their coconuts.

Summary: While coconuts aren’t land and water intensive, they can only be grown in tropical environments which can lead to other environmental detriment.

What’s it like for your health?

It’s the only milk alternative we looked at that either has similar (Unsweetened) or more saturated fat (Original) than dairy milk.

It also has very little protein – the Original only has 0.2g per 100ml.

After water and coconut milk (8.4%) the next ingredient is grape juice concentrate.

Summary: It’s low in protein so not a good direct substitute for milk. It’s also higher in saturated fat than any other milk alternative.

Hemp seeds

Hemp seed milk

Brands: Good Hemp, Sojade

Environmental impact

It wasn’t assessed by Poore and Nemecek's study, but hemp is regarded as a sustainable crop. According to a report by the European Commission on sustainable industrial crops, hemp requires little intervention to grow, is weed resistant and has very little need for pesticides or chemical treatment, as well as needing little water.

You can also use every part of the hemp plant for a myriad of different uses, including clothing, paper and furniture. The recent explosion in demand for CBD means hemp is a hugely growing market worldwide.

Good Hemp source their hemp seed from France and Canada. There are controls on hemp cultivation in the UK but it can be grown under licence.

Summary: While we can’t compare it with other non-dairy alternatives as it’s not included in the available data, hemp is a low impact crop with some interesting sustainability credentials.

What’s it like for your health?

As a cow's milk substitute it’s not great, as it’s very low in protein. But it’s low calorie and low carb and while it’s got more fat that any of the milks we looked at, it’s low in saturated fat.

Hemp seed milk contains naturally occurring omega-3 and omega-6, which are essential for health. Vegans and those following a plant-based diet must take care to get enough of these in their diets, particularly omega-3, so hemp seed milk could be a useful source.

Good Hemp Seed is the only one of the milk alternatives that we looked at that is not fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 or Vitamin D. An old formulation did used to fortify but Good Hemp has made the decision to make its product more natural.

Summary: Not a good direct substitute for milk and because it’s not fortified, not the best option unless you are getting enough calcium from other sources.

Oats

Oat milk

Brand: Alpro, Biona, Califia Farms, Innocent, Jord, Moma, Minor Figures, Oatly, Plenish, Rude Health

Environmental impact

Of the milks studied in the Poore and Nemecek research, oat milk does very well. Per litre, it uses 0.9 kg CO2e, 0.8 sqm land and 48 litres of water. All significantly less than both global and European dairy figures.

But the other big environmental advantage is that oats can be easily grown in temperate climates so are not associated with deforestation or loss of biodiversity.

One of the biggest oat milk brands, Oatly, includes how much CO2 was emitted in the production, packaging and transportation of its product to store on every carton.

The product we looked at has a climate footprint of 0.31kg CO2e, much less than in the Poore and Nemecek research, but the way this is measured is slightly different to the Poore and Nemecek study so not directly comparable.

Oatly states its packaging for its long-life products has a higher carbon impact than its chilled products because the long-life packaging requires an aluminium seal to protect the contents from spoiling. This means that the CO2 emissions of chilled vs long life products works out to be about the same.

Summary: A really good environmental option.

What’s it like for your health?

Oat milk is much lower in protein than semi-skimmed milk and higher in carbohydrates. It has a similar amount of calories and fat, although we looked at Oatly’s Original product, Oatly’s Barista Edition has almost 3g of fat per 100ml.

Oat milk naturally has a sweet taste so is not typically sweetened.

Oats (and oat milk) contain beta glucans, a type of soluble dietary fibre recognised for its cholesterol-lowering properties.

A 2016 systematic review and meta analysis found oat beta gluten could have a lowering effect on ‘bad’ cholesterol and could be a tool in reducing cardiovascular disease.

Oatly say one 250ml glass contains 1/3 of your daily requirement of betaglucan.

Like the pea milk we looked at, Oatly is also fortified with iodine.

Oats make up 10% of Oatly’s milk which is mixed with water. The next largest ingredient is rapeseed oil.

Summary: Could be a good option if you are trying to lower or maintain healthy cholesterol levels, though bear in mind the low protein content.

Yellow split peas

Pea milk

Brands: Mighty Pea Society, Qwerkee, Ripple, Sproud

Environmental impact

As a relatively new entrant to the market, pea milk wasn’t included in Poore and Nemecek’s analysis. Pea protein made from yellow split peas is fairly common now as a meat substitute and interest in the crop is growing.

While yellow split peas are commonly grown as far afield as China, the Mighty Pea Society (the brand we looked at) sources its peas from within the EU.

It has had its products certified by Mondra, a label that certifies ‘farm to fork’ eco-impacts of a product and uses the same methods as the Poore and Nemecek study so is directly comparable to those products.

This assessed that a litre of pea milk uses 0.34kg CO2eq, 52 litres water and 0.5m2 land, which is impressively low, particularly for carbon emissions (nearly 10 times less than global figures for cow’s milk and nearly 6.5 time less than the European figures).

Summary: A really good sustainable option, especially when the yellow split peas are grown closer to home.

What’s it like for your health?

Pea milk is nutritionally similar to soy and a source of all essential amino acids. It contains almost as much protein per 100ml as dairy milk. The Mighty Pea Society pea milk also contains, after fortification, more calcium than any of the other milks, dairy included.

It also contains 21% of NRV (nutrient reference value) of iodine, which is the same as cow’s milk.

The Mighty Pea Society, says its aim is to provide a ‘high level of nutrition where other brands/variants provide little or fall short’.

Like soy, some people are allergic to pea protein/pea milk.

Mighty Pea M.LK (both original and unsweetened) contains 4% pea protein isolate. Water is the largest ingredient, followed by pea protein isolate, and sunflower oil.

Summary: Similar nutritionally to soya milk and a protein-rich dairy milk substitute. The brand we looked at is fortified with more calcium than dairy milk.

Rice

Rice milk

Brands: Alpro, Provamel, Rice Dream, Rude Health, Riso Scotti

Environmental impact

Rice milk scores very well for land use but is the highest, after dairy milk, for carbon emissions. This is because rice farmers often flood rice fields which breeds bacteria in the soil leading to methane production. It also means water use can be very high.

Over-fertilisation is common in intensive rice agriculture too, which can lead to soil degradation and water pollution.

Summary: Not the best environmental choice, because of water use and methane emissions.

What’s it like for your health?

The brand we looked at, Rice Dream, had the highest calories per 100ml of any of the milks, including semi-skimmed dairy. However, it's low in fat and very low in saturated fat. It has the highest carbohydrate content and therefore sugar content (even though there’s no added sugar), and negligible protein.

Children under five shouldn’t be given rice milk as it contains arsenic at levels that are safe for adults but not small children.

People are unlikely to be allergic to rice milk.

Summary: Not a good dairy milk substitute nutritionally – there is almost no protein. Has higher levels of natural sugar than other alternatives.

Soy beans

Soya milk

Brands: Alpro, Bonsoy, Plenish, Provamel, Rude Health, Sojade, Valsoia

Environmental impact

On the three main factors considered in the Poore and Nemecek study, soya milk has the lowest overall impact. Most notably it uses a fraction of the water of the global cow’s milk industry – over 22 times less and 11 times less than European cow's milk.

But soya milk and other soya products have come under a great deal of fire in recent years, as it’s a crop heavily linked to deforestation and destruction of vital habitats, including the Amazon rainforest.

The reality is that the majority of all soy (over 80%) is grown to feed to livestock. In the UK, dairy herds and beef cattle generally have a higher proportion of grass feed than in some other countries, but large quantities of soy are still used to feed poultry and pigs.

The soya milk brands mentioned above source their soybeans entirely from the USA, Canada or Europe, so are not linked to any deforestation in Brazil. If you find a different brand, perhaps abroad, it’s worth doing your research into the origins of the soybeans.

Summary: A good option as long as the soybeans have not come from areas with deforestation concerns.

What’s it like for your health?

Nutritionally, soya milk has historically been the closest to dairy milk, as soyabeans are a complete protein and contain all the essential amino acids. Pea milk is now a similar alternative.

Alpro Soya Drink is fortified to provide similar levels of calcium and vitamin B12 to dairy. It also, like all of the milk alternatives we looked at (aside from hemp seed), is fortified with Vitamin D (something which isn’t found in large quantities in dairy).

It is lower in calories than semi-skimmed milk but contains only very slightly less protein.

It’s low in saturated fat.

Soya is listed in AllergyUK’s top 14 allergens. Some children who are allergic to cow’s milk may also be allergic to soya.

Summary: A good alternative if you are looking for something similar nutritionally to cow’s milk.