Everyday Enviro with Elise - Putting the microscope on plant milks

Date: 30-Jul-19
Author: Elise Catterall

When it comes to plant milk, it turns out apples aren’t apples and what may seem the most environmentally friendly option might not be.

When it comes to plant milk, it turns out apples aren’t apples and what may seem the most environmentally friendly option might not be.

Not sure if you are like me but, these days, supermarket shopping takes a long time.  For every product I contemplate buying, my brain initiates a decision flow chart to determine if it is worthy of my trolley – or, as is often the case, to determine how guilty I will feel about my purchase.

Nearly twenty years of being a naturopath and thirty years of being a vegetarian means that health/nutrition/animal welfare criteria are filtered through first, but then comes the more environmental/ethical criteria.

Does it contain palm oil? GMOs? Is it fair-trade? Is it packaged? Can I recycle the packaging? Is it imported? How far has it travelled? Which company manufactures it? And so on. . . It’s a bit exhausting.

One of the supermarket product lines that I buy for myself and my family is plant milk and now, driven by increasing sales, there is more choice in plant milks than ever before.

Recently, I wrote a piece for The Vegan Company looking at the major plant milks that are on the market (or that you can make yourself) and kind of ran through a modified version of my nutritional flow chart, laying out the merits of each.

During my research for that piece, I read some findings from a recently published Oxford University study that, among other things, weighed up which of the most popular plant milks (rice, soy, almond & oat) had the least impact on the plant (and compared them to dairy milk).  The study gauged the impact against three measures: greenhouse gas emission, land use, and water use. 

The good news, if you are a plant milk consumer, was that all of the plant milks studied had a vastly smaller environmental impact than dairy milk (e.g., a 200ml glass of cows milk creates 3 times the greenhouse gas emissions than non-dairy milk), but the variations within the plant milks across the measures, surprised me.  For example, if you are choosing solely on greenhouse gas emissions, almond milk is your pick; if you are choosing based on land use, you can’t go past rice milk; but if you are choosing based on precious water use, soy is your best bet. 

So, when it comes to plant milk, apples aren’t apples, so to speak. You can see the ranking here. (I was particularly disappointed at how poorly almond milk ranked across the board.) Happily, though, one milk ranked well in every category: oat milk. It has low emissions, low land use and low water use.  And, for me at least, it tastes great.  

It’s worth reiterating that pretty much any plant milk at the supermarket is, relatively, environmentally friendly (relative to supermarket dairy milk, that is) so you can feel good in that respect – however, it is worth noting that, at the supermarket, the ‘gable top’ chilled plant milks are a better packaging option than the aseptic/UHT Tetra Pak bricks, as they are easier to recycle.  You just need to add that to your flow chart.


See you next time! - Elise

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Elise                                             Catterall
Author: Elise Catterall

Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.



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