When the debate about which milk does less harm to the planet comes up, environmental activists say there’s no question: plant-based milk is the best.
The industry has evolved, and the top producing countries (China, Italy, New Zealand, and the United States of America) now get much more milk from cows, thereby reducing the environmental impact (for example, one cow in the US now offers four times as much milk as one in India). A Holstein cow in Wisconsin already holds a world record: in one year it gave more than 34,000 liters of milk.
But the need for natural resources to feed the animals that provide milk daily is huge. The dairy industry uses 20 times more water than that which produces oat, soy, almond or rice milk, according to CNNwhich cites a 2018 study conducted by Oxford University in the UK.
How much cow’s milk do adults need?
Most advertising messages induce the potential consumer to believe that cow’s milk is healthy for him: it contains calcium, protein and other nutrients that help in strong development.
“Milk is pretty amazing nutritionally because a young mammal can live and grow on milk alone. But that doesn’t particularly mean it’s an optimal food for our entire lives,” said Dr. Walter Willett.
He also explains that, unless our ancestors came from an area of the world where it was genetically necessary to consume dairy daily, the bodies of today’s adults no longer produce the enzymes they produced as children. However, this means that without the enzymes in lactose, the adult body makes an effort to break down milk sugars.
“Milk and dairy products were especially consumed by those in northern European countries. A large part of the world’s population no longer consumes milk after they have passed childhood”, said the doctor.
The current heated discussion also refers to the hormones and antibiotics that factory cows receive. Animals are almost always pregnant, which raises the levels of progesterone, estrogen and other hormones in the milk. However, doctors’ concerns about people’s resistance to antibiotics and hormones are increasingly in the news.
Plant milk, produced from almost any plant
Meanwhile, the plant-based milk market exploded. So far, manufacturers have created milks from vegetables (soy, peas, peanuts, potatoes and beans), nuts (almonds, coconut, hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts and cashews), seeds (sesame, sunflower, flax and hemp) and grains (rice, oats, corn, quinoa, amaranth and wheat).
“Almost any nut, vegetable or grain becomes a plant-based milk option. The latest alternative we found was banana milk!” said Christopher Gardner, a professor at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California.
In terms of environmental impact, the answer is a complicated one: rice milk requires the least agricultural land to produce, while almond milk emits fewer greenhouse gases. Soy milk needs less fresh water and oat milk is somewhere in the middle of all these factors.
And nutritionally, each category has advantages and disadvantages. In terms of calcium, it’s clear that cow’s milk is the winner, but the manufacturers of the plant-based alternative have solved the problem and add calcium – about 300 milligrams, the equivalent of the animal version. The bad part is that there are many varieties in stores that contain sugar.
“Try the unsweetened version. They’re usually just as tasty as the original, but with fewer calories, sugars and carbs,” said Christopher Gardner.
For his part, Dr. Walter Willett added: “A serving a day is probably better than plain yogurt or a piece of cheese. And then, if we still feel the need, we can add the vegetable alternative. I think from a health and environmental impact point of view that’s a reasonable starting point.”