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- Plant-based milks are more sustainable than cow milk overall
- Oat, soy, and coconut milk are some of the more sustainable options
- If you don’t have a strong preference for it, avoid almond milk
- The less transportation involved, the better (buy local if possible)
This is a tricky question because none of the milk options are the ‘best’ in every category.
Researchers often use life cycle analysis (LCA) as a tool to have a more standard comparison, which looks at the inputs and outputs (in this case resources and emissions) through a product’s entire life cycle (Milani, Nutter, and Thoma, 2011). Cow and plant-based milk LCA results can vary based on where the study takes place, what units are used to measure impact, and which steps of the lifecycle are taken into account.
That being said, there are some meaningful takeaways from the research. First, plant-based milks outperform cow milk overall in terms of their global warming potentials (Clune, Crossin, and Verghese, 2017).
Second, while not all plant-based alternatives have been studied or compared, oat milk appears to be one of the better options, with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than soy milk (Mikkolaa and Risku-Norja, 2008). Almond milk and coconut milk are reported to have lower global warming potentials than soy milk, but almond milk uses more water in its production than all other options, including cow milk (Clune, Crossin, and Verghese, 2017; Grant and Hicks, 2018).
Third, how far the milk has to travel before reaching its destination can have a significant impact on the GHG emissions of the product (Grant and Hicks, 2018).
When choosing which type of milk to consume, nutrition is probably going to play a part in your decision. I’m not going to cover that aspect, but I found a great article by Nutrition Support Specialist Meagan Bridges (2018) that provides a comprehensive look at the nutritional value of plant-based milks.
Assessing the trade-offs between milk types can be confusing and can start to look like a game of rock, paper, scissors. As a general rule of thumb, plant-based and local is better, and maybe stay away from almond milk if you’re indifferent to which type you drink.