Milking the plants

Its World Plant Milk Day today (22nd August). So what are some of the plant milk options hitting our supermarket shelves and how do they stack up on health and sustainability grounds?

Driven by concerns over animal welfare, healthy diets and environmental impact consumers are increasingly turning to plant-based products on a global scale. A recent report estimates that the market for plant-based milk will reach US$21.52 billion by 2024 and is growing at a rate of more than 10% per year. 

This attention is causing problems and dairy farmers are increasingly agitating to try to stop the word ‘milk’ being used to describe plant products, which they say should be referred to as ‘juice’. But as I know from my botany training the term milk is also used to describe the juice or sap of plants that is white in colour. So if its a white liquid you can call it milk.

Certainly plant-based milks are better for us than dairy options, with lower level of saturated fat. They are also better for the planet. A study from the University of Oxford found that producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions and consumes nine times more land than plant alternatives.

But what are the alternatives and how do they fare on health and environmental grounds?


Popular with chefs and cooks for its taste and consistency but, global demand for coconut milk has flagged deforestation and exploitation of workers. Buy coconut products certified as Fair Trade.


A popular plant milk, particularly with coffee, but almonds require a lot of water to grow – 60 litres of water to produce a single glass of almond milk – more than any other dairy alternative. Almond farming also puts unsustainable pressure on commercial beekeepers and honey bees, which are required to pollinate the crop. In the US nearly 70% of commercial bees are moved all over the country to pollinate almond stands. In addition last year over a third of the bees had died by the end of the season due to the poor nutrition provided by almond flowers and lack of other bee food sources in almond orchards.


Easy to get hold of and cheap, but relatively low in nutrients, rice is also very water hungry. In addition, growing rice emits more greenhouse gas than any other plant milk due to the bacteria found in rice paddies.


Soy is most comparable to cow’s milk in terms of protein content, and its also one of the most environmentally friendly products. Recent concerns have focused on phyto-oestrogen, similar to human female hormones, which is present in quite high concentrations. However you’d have to consume very large quantities of soy milk for it to become a problem. Due to land conflict issues and deforestation caused by soy bean farming, seek out sustainably sourced and fair trade options.


Oat milk is increasing in popularity – sales in the US have gone up $4.4m in 2017 to $29m in 2019, and oats have overtaken almonds as the fastest-growing dairy alternative. Oat milk also performs well on all sustainability metrics, and there is not likely to be increased environmental concerns as the scale of oat milk production increases. There have been some concerns about glyphosate contamination, but organic oat products are available.


Hazelnut milk, still a relatively niche product, is popular for its flavour. As it is a tree nut, it sequesters carbon as it grows and since it is wind pollinated it doesn’t require hived bees.

New kids on the block – flax, hemp and pea

All still relatively small milk crops, but have good levels of protein and sustainability profiles.

Cow’s milk – the last word

So whilst plant based alternatives are coming through strongly, lets not forget about cow’s milk.

Cow’s milk is an excellent source of protein and calcium, as well as vitamin B12 and iodine. It also contains magnesium, important for bone development and muscle function, and whey and casein, which can play a role in lowering blood pressure.

There are also low fat options (skimmed milk is 0.3% fat), products which have plant sterols added and claim to reduce cholesterol, and the sustainability of dairy farming is improving all the time.

So there you have it, milk choices laid bare.

At the end of the day, taste is also likely to be a key consideration for many consumers – so go ahead and choose your poison, or rather milk.

Article based on an interview with Deb Tribe (starts at 1:18:18), ABC Radio, 7:20, 22nd August 2020, and a piece in the Guardian

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