How Do Plant Alternatives Compare to Real Milk?

In determining a product’s sustainability, variables like greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use, and land use should be considered, not to mention how much waste, like leftover pulp, is produced and whether it’s reused. 

One must also consider a product’s overall benefits. When it comes to foods, especially milk, their nutrient packages are another factor in sustainability. Real milk has been pasteurized and fortified with vitamin A and vitamin D. This is an important point to remember when considering sustainability, as plant-based “milks” tend to be processed in ways that filter out many of the nutrients that all the resources considered went into producing, while real milk is minimally processed with 9 essential nutrients. 

Dairy farms use land to house cows, to allow access to grazing for cows, and to grow crops for cow feed. Though this sounds like excessive use of resources, through an improved diet and a better genetic pool, today’s cows produce more milk than their ancestors, needing less land to graze, all with a population decrease of 25 million to 9 million cows. 

In fact, dairy farmers voluntarily reduced their carbon footprint by 63 percent between 1944 and 2007, taking 90% less land, 65% less water, and holding a 63% smaller carbon footprint. Despite milk production increasing, needed feed decreased 77% for 79% fewer cows, allowing for 75% less manure waste. This culminated into dairy farms contributing only 2% of total US GHG in 2007. And these numbers continue to create a very different dairy industry, as dairy farmers have made a commitment to achieve a net zero carbon footprint by 2050. 

Unlike plant-based beverages, which are often grown and processed in a relatively compact region to be moved across the nation, milk doesn’t have to be taken across the country to find its way into consumers’ kitchens. Local dairy farmers collect the milk and send it to the nearby processor to be pasteurized and packaged before it appears at local grocery stores, all within 48 hours of leaving the farm. Can your carton of alternative milk say that? 

So how do these others compare? In the following weeks, we’ll look in-depth at soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk to see how they compare to real milk’s sustainability. 

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