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Choosing A Plant Based Alternative to Cow’s Milk

Choosing A Plant Based Alternative to Cow’s Milk

About three years ago I choose to become a vegetarian. After suffering for a long time with migraines – I was advised to move towards a more plant based diet. Over time, I have continued to cut out diary based products and while I would not class myself as a fully fledged vegan just yet (working very hard towards it though) – I would definitely say that my consumption of milk has drastically decreased to almost zero. (I have to be honest and say that if someone makes me a cup of tea and puts milk in it, I don’t refuse it. It’s not on them to remember whether or not I drink milk or not – that always acts as a reminder for me to ensure that I let people know if/why I have chosen not to drink milk).

The Environmental Impact of Milk:

Until I started reading into the production of milk – I actually believed that this stuff was good for me. I saw it as a good source of calcium. Most likely when milk production was not a business but instead a cow was a life source – it probably was good for me. Now there’s a load of crap in the milk we drink that we don’t even know about. Before we go onto what’s in the milk – I want to first talk about the environmental impact in relation to how it is made.

Milk Production:

Over a third of global methane emissions are produced through livestock farming which is more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Did you know that there are approximately 270 million diary cows in the world – that’s a lot of methane being produced.

It has been agreed by scientists that dairy industry has an overall negative affect on the environment. It takes a lot of land, fertiliser and water to grow food for cows and alongside this it takes a lot of energy to process the raw milk product, package it and deliver it to supermarkets/grocery stores around the world. Consider as well that 270 million cows will produce a lot of waste product (manure) – that needs to be carefully handled otherwise that will cause issues with local water supplies.

This article by The Guardian that highlights the carbon footprint of a cup of tea/coffee really puts this into context. If you drink your favourite warm beverage without a drop of milk in it – you are halving it’s carbon footprint. (1)

– 21g CO2e: black tea or coffee, boiling only the water you need
– 53g CO2e: white tea or coffee, boiling only the water you need
– 71g CO2e: white tea or coffee, boiling double the water you need
– 235g CO2e: a large cappuccino
– 340g CO2e: a large latte

I found this quite sobering actually:

If you drink four mugs of black tea per day, boiling only as much water as you need, that works out as just 30kg of CO2e each year – the same as a 40-mile drive in an average car. Three large lattes per day, by contrast, and you’re looking at almost twenty times as much carbon, equivalent to flying half way across Europe.


Therefore we’re forced to consider the validity of non-dairy alternatives as studies have estimated that by switching to a non-dairy milk, you are likely to half the emissions of that food item, so by swapping dairy milk for non-dairy that cup of coffee’s footprint reduces to around 26.5g CO2e. 

However – are all milk alternatives actually environmentally friendly?

Just before we move onto other milk alternatives – I just want to draw your attention to what your dairy milk is made up of.. I’ve read about this a lot and to be honest, while I appreciate that milk is an important nutrient rich food – it’s designed to be drunk by the animal/mammal that needs it. Babies drink breast milk and thus calves should be drinking cows milk right? Cows ultimately are producing milk to nourish their young.

Think back to your childhood – we were given milk before we went to school and before we went to bed (well I know I was) and so I wholeheartedly believed that it was a nutritious options that was necessary for me to grow big and strong. The reality surrounding the impact of cow’s milk can therefore be quite shocking — it’s a food item that we see as normal, necessary, and everyday. It’s also why it’s so difficult for people to accept that the dairy industry is unbelievably cruel and ultimately unethical.

On dairy farms, cows are often pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive and producing milk in factory farm conditions. 

Cow’s milk naturally contains a cocktail of 35 hormones and growth factors, including IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), oestrogen and progesterone, adrenal, pituitary, hypothalamic and other hormones. All these are meant for a calf and perfectly suit his or her growth and development needs (a calf grows into an adult size cow/bull in just one year).

However, these hormones can accelerate cancer growth in a grown-up human body. Certain types of cancer cells are sensitive to hormones and respond with faster and more aggressive growth.

Two of the biggest concerns are oestrogen and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) as both are linked to breast and prostate cancers in humans. Even small increases of IGF-1 raise the risks of several other common cancers including breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers. IGF-1 is not destroyed during pasteurisation. For more information on this subject see the White Lies report. (2)

While I am not one to force anyone to do anything, I think you have to think about what you’re putting into your body. It’s important to note that the intake of plant-based dairy is increasing in the UK, and it is predicted that this industry will have increased by 43% by 2021 (3)

So which milk alternative should you consider switching to?

Image reference: PEN (2017) “Plant-based Beverages – Are They Really Healthier For Young Children?”

If buying plant-based dairy alternatives, always make sure that they are fortified with: calcium and vitamin B12; some companies are also starting to fortify with iodine too which is a plus. Calcium fortification is especially important, as dairy is our main source of calcium in the UK. (4)

The graph below is a great identifier of the environmental impact, however it doesn’t include Coconut milk which does have a lower environmental impact comparative to other alternatives.


This milk options features an array of health benefits, including good fats, flavonoids and protein. However, Almond milk itself does not include the same level of nutrients as almonds themselves – that’s because usually almond milk only contains about 2% of almonds.

While it’s not comparable in terms of the level of nutrients, it’s actually lower in terms of calorific value and if you buy an alternative that is fortified with additional calcium and vitamins then it will serve you well. Make sure you check whether or not it is fortified though.

HOWEVER, it’s important to note that the environmental impact of this alternative is fairly high. The biggest problem with almonds is that they require a lot of water to produce. On average, it takes a little over a gallon of water to grow a single almond. Even worse, many almond growers are located in California, which has suffered extreme droughts over the past few years.


I’m personally a big fan of coconut milk and I actually LOVE a coconut milk hot chocolate.

Coconut milk has a higher fat content than the other plant milks and is rich and creamy. It is best suited to drinking from the glass, cereal and smoothies. Some people really like it in tea and coffee but personally I find that it’s too watery and I actually don’t enjoy drinking it when paired with certain hot drinks. I find the taste too overpowering.

It is good for baking and cooking however and I use it a lot in curries and cakes but remember it will give a coconutty taste so it’s not always suitable for some savoury dishes. I’m from an Indian family so we love the ‘coconut’ undertone. It’s really widely available, comes in a variety of brands and can be found in major supermarkets, independent health food shops, online, some restaurants, cafes and coffee shops.

Like almond milk, coconut milk does not feature as many nutritional benefits as you might think. Aside from being low in calories, coconut milk features little on the vitamin and protein front so again ensure that you choose options that are fortified.

Coconut milk has a very low environmental impact. The farms are eco-friendly and use small amounts of water to produce coconuts. Coconut trees can also filter out carbon dioxide, which is great for combating greenhouse gases. The transportation and processing are the only environmental impacts to consider in the production of coconuts.


The nutritional value of soy milk is close to cow’s milk. It has plenty of macronutrients, carbohydrates and fat. The main difference is that it does not have large concentrations of iodine, B vitamins, calcium or lactose. Soy is a plant product, so sugar is added to make it sweeter (there are unsweetened options on the market).

Other milk options include Oat and Hemp milk but as I don’t drink either of these, I can’t comment on these specifically.


(1) The Guardian (2010) “What’s the carbon footprint of … a cup of tea or coffee?” [accessed May 2020 via:]

(2) Scary Dairy “What’s in Dairy & Do We Need It?” [accessed May 2020 via:]

(3) Foodbev Media (2017) “Uk Meat Substitutes Sales to Grow by 25% in Four Years” [accessed May 2020 via:]

(4) The Food Medic 2018) “IS DAIRY BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?” [accessed May 2020 via:]

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