Cow’s milk is the most popular, accessible and cheapest milk worldwide. There are many nutrients that accompany dairy products since cow’s milk is high in protein and calcium, and is fortified with additional vitamins for extra nutrition. But dairy is a common allergy; about 65% of the world’s population is thought to experience some difficulty in digesting lactose, even without experiencing symptoms of an allergic reaction. Additionally, dairy production has a big impact on the environment. Just one 200ml glass of cow’s milk can require up to 120L of water and 1.5 square metres of land!
Soy is a popular plant-based alternative to dairy. Soya milk is an excellent source of protein and is often fortified with the same vitamins as cow’s milk. But the health benefits of soy are also contestable – whilst soy beans can lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, soy contains a type of plant oestrogen which can affect the body’s natural control of hormones. Also, soy is almost always genetically modified and contaminated with pesticides which can prohibit the uptake of essential minerals. The production of soy beans is one of the biggest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions too; although this may be more to do with livestock than the production of milk, the environmental impact is hard to ignore.
Almond milk is also a popular plant-based milk alternative. Despite being much lower in protein and carbohydrates than soya and dairy, almond milk provides a good source of antioxidants and vitamin E. Almond milk is best used for baking and cooking, but not for coffee – unless a curdled coffee is what you’re after. Almond milk requires a lot of water for production – a single glass requires 74 litres! This could have detrimental environmental effects in the future for places like California where 80% of the world’s almonds are harvested.
Oat milk is arguably the most similar in taste and consistency to cow’s milk. Oats are good for digestion and stabilising blood sugar levels. When made into a milk, it is naturally sweet and creamy, and is best for hot drinks. What’s more is that it is incredibly easy and cheap to make at home yourself! Oat milk is also good for using in baking and cooking and has a much lower impact on the environment than any other plant-based milk.
Finally, coconut milk! Coconut milk is rich and creamy in flavour and is best for African and Asian cooking or takes on breakfasts and drinks. It is high in fat and has numerous health benefits for the heart and cholesterol. That said, coconut milk surprisingly has even less protein than almond milk, and has a lot less versatility for hot drinks and cereals. Coconut farming has a low impact on the environment, but that is before it is produced into milk and transported from tropical climates to the western world.
Both dairy and plant-based alternatives have their nutritional benefits and problems. Whilst dairy can have a huge environmental impact and cause health problems for some, this is not to say that plant-based alternatives are always environmentally safe and nutritious. The best milk is subjective to each person – although experimenting to decide which is best for you is always the best option.