World Milk Day: Is your favourite milk good for the planet?

Is YOUR favourite milk good for the planet? Scientists reveal how different varieties stack up this World Milk Day (and it’s bad news for fans of dairy)

  • Vegans herald World Milk Day today with a glass of soy, oat or rice milk 
  • An Oxford study shows which alternatives are best for the planet 
  • Research shows a reliance on animal milks harms the environment

Whether it’s oat, soy, almond or rice, we’ve never had more choices when it comes to pouring milk on cereal or ordering a latte this World Milk Day. 

But if you tend to opt for a plant-based alternative to cow’s milk, keep in mind that some are better for the environment than others. 

According to a University of Oxford study, almond milk is the best vegan option if you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, while rice milk is the worst.  

However, animal milks are by far the most damaging to the planet overall, the study found, largely due to cows being huge greenhouse gas emitters. 

Scientists say livestock farming on the current scale generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases and is pushing our planet into a climate crisis. 

Almond milk is the best vegan option if you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions (black bar chart), while rice milk is the worst. However, the picture becomes more complicated when we look at land and water use too

The study, led by Joseph Poore at the University of Oxford, looked at carbon emissions, land use and water use involved in the production of dairy milk and several vegan alternatives. 

CO2 emissions of different milks 

Figures are kg of greenhouse gas emissions per 200ml glass of milk 

Dairy: 0.64

Rice: 0.3

Soy: 0.2 

Oat: 0.19

Almond: 0.18

Source: Poore et al 

Dairy milk, a staple of the breakfast table for generations, by far has the highest emissions – around 1.41lbs (0.64kg) for every 200ml glass, the research found. 

After dairy milk, rice milk was shown to have the highest emissions (around 0.66lbs / 0.3kg), followed by soy milk, oat milk and lastly almond milk.

However, the picture becomes more complicated when taking into account both land and water use too – two metrics that are important to consider when looking at sustainable food choices.

The research found almond milk has a fairly high water use – 74 litres per 200ml glass – largely because almond trees need a lot to grow.

Rice milk also has sizeable water use – 54 litres per glass – because the rice plant is semi-aquatic and needs constant irrigation, while the water use of soy and oat was low. 

The results also show that all four of the vegan milk alternatives have very low land use compared to dairy milk, which was by far and away the least eco-friendly choice. 

Land use of dairy milk stands at a hefty 1.7 square metres per 200ml glass, while the others were around 0.1 or less.  

From oat and soy to almond, rice and even coconut, there’s never been more vegan-friendly alternatives to animal milk – but are they good for the planet?

So what does all this mean when we’re at the supermarket deciding what milk to get, wanting to do our bit to help the planet?

According to Jena Williams, a dietitian at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington who wasn’t involved with the study, any plant-based milk is a responsible option as long as we make efforts to recycle the packaging it comes in.  

READ MORE: Meat and dairy accounts for almost TWICE the greenhouse gas emissions as plant-based alternatives

Animal-based diets risk the health of the planet, research shows  

‘Plant-based milk has a smaller impact on water and land as well as carbon emissions when compared to dairy milk,’ said Williams.

‘Overall, soy, oat, hemp, and pea milks are more eco-friendly choices than almond or rice milk.

To help strengthen your environmental decisions, choose plant-based milks that come in a recyclable container to help reduce waste and try to purchase organic plant-based milks.

‘This ensures ingredients are grown without pesticides that can harm soil and pollute water and air.’ 

The Oxford study’s results corroborate information from the ‘food carbon footprint calculator’, an online tool that gives hundreds of food items a traffic light-style ‘carbon rating’. 

It ranks each item by CO2 equivalent (CO2e), a unit of measurement that scientists use to standardise the climate effects of various greenhouse gases. 

No vegan milk has a carbon footprint that comes anything close to that of the real thing, according to the tool. 

A 200g glass of sheep’s milk has a ‘very high’ carbon footprint of 1680g CO2e – more than 10 times that of the same serving of soy milk (156g CO2e), for example. 

Soy milk, said to be the most nutritious substitute to animal milk, is made by boiling a mixture of ground up soy beans after they have been soaked to soften them.

Animal milks are by far the most damaging to the planet overall, largely due to cows being huge greenhouse gas emitters (file photo)

It quite closely matches the nutritional values of regular cow’s milk, according to Meagan Bridges Durkin, a nutrition specialist at the University of Virginia.

‘Soy milk has gotten a bad rap lately, as other alternative forms have come onto the market, people are maybe trying to find reasons not to drink soy milk,’ she said.

‘Soy milk is a really good alternative and the best thing is that, from a nutrition standpoint, it’s as close to cow’s milk as you’re going to get in terms of protein, vitamin C and calcium.’ 

Milk substitutes, with the exception of soya, typically do not match the protein content of cow’s milk, Professor Ian Givens at the University of Reading warned last year. 

Teenagers are especially at risk of developing health problems if they drink these trendy alternatives, as they may be missing out on essential nutrients. 

World Milk Day: Scientists confirm glass bottles preserve flavour more effectively than trendy paper cartons 

For decades in Britain, milk has been delivered in glass pint bottles in the wee hours by the cheery milkman.

But soaring costs and the pressure to switch to alternative packaging could replace this valued tradition once and for all.

More and more the public are tending to go to the supermarket to buy their milk, where it’s available in paperboard cartons and even soft plastic bags. 

In experiments in the US, glass and plastic were found to be the best for preserving flavour and freshness of milk (file photo)

However, a new study shows milk’s packaging really does influence its flavour – and that the milkman’s glass is best if you want to fully appreciate it. 

Scientists found trendy paperboard cartons – which are increasingly being used for packaging vegan milk substitutes – don’t preserve its freshness or flavour as well as glass. 

‘Milk’s taste can be impacted by the exchange of the packaging’s compounds into the milk and by the packaging absorbing food flavours and aromas from the surrounding refrigeration environment,’ said lead author Mary-Anne Drake at North Carolina State University. 

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