What are the different types of plant milks?

1 Oct 2021
5 min read

There has never been more choice when it comes to dairy-free milk options, but some are kinder to the climate than others

The environmental impact of dairy farming is becoming increasingly clear. At any given moment there are around 264 million dairy cows on farms around the world, all requiring huge volumes of resources – land, water, food – to maintain, and all releasing dangerous methane gases into the environment. Methane is up to 34 times more harmful than CO2, with livestock responsible for 27% of all global methane emissions. 

Traditional cows’ milk is gradually losing popularity, and plant-based alternatives are taking its place

This, combined with consumer demands for products with longer shelf lives, a growing focus on health and wellbeing, an increasing trend towards veganism, and a better understanding of complex dietary requirements (such as lactose intolerance), means traditional cows’ milk is gradually losing popularity, and plant-based alternatives are taking its place.

Research from trade magazine The Grocer suggests that 62% of us have bought a plant-based milk at least once before, while data from analysts Nielsen show that sales of plant milk in the UK soared by 107% in the last two years, and are now worth £278m.  

This trajectory is such that British billionaire investor Jim Mellon, who specialises in the alternative food market, has even predicted alternative milks will become so popular that “the dairy industry, as it is today, will be gone within ten years”.

Plant based alternatives to cows' milk

But what exactly are plant-based milks, and what are the differences between them? At a basic level, the term refers to a milk-like liquid extract derived from nuts, seeds and other foods – Swedish firm DUG has even launched a milk made from potatoes. This liquid can then be used for cooking and drinking just like cows’ milk, but without the animal connection – and without the associated environmental impact. Here’s what you need to know about the most popular plant-based milks on the market.

Oat milk

Oat milk is one of the most popular dairy alternatives. It’s creamy but drinkable by the glass, and can be easily substituted for baking recipes. It’s also a great source of vitamin A and vitamin D.

In terms of the environment, oats are great. They can be grown easily here in the UK, do not lead to water shortage problems and are not associated with deforestation. Go organic for an even better sustainability rating.

Almond milk

Almond milk is particularly popular with vegans because its mild nutty flavour and thick, creamy consistency makes it comparable to whole cows’ milk. It works wonderfully in smoothies, and is a brilliant source of calcium and vitamin E.

From an environmental standpoint, however, it’s not such a good choice. Almonds are grown intensively in California which has suffered significant drought in recent years, yet the water-hungry almond industry (it takes 130 pints of water to make just one glass of almond milk) is consistently prioritised over other, arguably more important, needs.

Soy milk

Soy milk is widely regarded as the original plant-based milk and has been made worldwide for hundreds of years. It’s light and versatile, working well in everything from coffee drinks to baking recipes. It’s also a great source of vitamin D and B2.

Environmentally, growing soy requires low land and water use, and doesn’t produce high greenhouse gas emissions. However, some soy-producing parts of the world, such as Brazil, are having major problems with soy-related deforestation, so be sure to choose soy milk products that are Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) certified.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk is the lightest and most refreshing of all the plant-based milks. It’s smooth and comes with a subtle sweet coconut flavour, making it the perfect addition to curries, smoothies or to simply drink on its own. It’s a good source of calcium, and it’s gluten-free.

However, coconuts come from exotic climates and aren’t easy to grow, and farmers are often paid poorly for their efforts – plus global trade often diverts this food source away from local populations. So if you love coconut milk, be sure to use it sparingly.

Hazelnut milk

Hazelnut milk is similar to almond milk in that it has a light, sweet taste with a subtle nutty flavour. It works particularly well in sweet cereals and recipes requiring a lighter milk or froth, and is a great source of vitamins A, B2, D and E.

Hazelnuts are grown on trees, so their production is helping to actively take carbon out of the atmosphere. However, they are difficult to mass produce, and if the aim of a sustainable food system is to produce the most food for the most people in an environmentally-friendly way, hazelnut milk falls behind other plant-based milks.

Pea milk

Pea milk is made from yellow split peas, and is one of the creamiest of all the plant-based milks. Because of its thick and almost oily viscosity, pea milk is an excellent coffee creamer and works brilliantly in cooking and baking recipes since it helps act as a binding agent. It’s also nut-free, and a good source of calcium and vitamin A.

Pea milk is also kinder to the environment than other plant-based milks, as growing pulses improves soil fertility, requires little energy-intensive fertilisers and is very water efficient.

Potato milk

Potato milk is a relative newcomer to the plant-based milk line-up, currently only made by DUG and available online. It’s thick and creamy, and is also lactose, soy, gluten and nut free, making it suitable for most people. However, it’s certainly an acquired taste so bear that in mind!

Potatoes are one of the lowest carbon foods you can get, and according to DUG, its potato milk is among the most sustainable of all the plant-based milks. The company says it’s 56 times more water-efficient than almonds, and requires half as much land as oats.

The bottom line

Dairy milk is quickly being usurped by plant-based milks and there are a lot of alternatives to choose from – and you don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy them. But from a sustainability perspective, some are more planet-friendly than others. Potato milk stands to be a long-term eco-winner, but it’s still in its infancy and harder to get hold of. Until it becomes more mainstream, the greenest choices are oat, pea and (if RTRS certified) soy milk – all of which are available widely.


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