According to vegan charity Veganuary (vegan + January), an estimated 300,000 people are going animal product-free this month. Alternatives to dairy milk include the well-known soya milk and almond milk, as well as a relative newcomer to the UK market: oat milk. But is it a worthy option as a dairy substitute? We compare oat, almond, soy, and coconut milk with both environmental and nutritional impact considered.
How are they produced?
Oat milk production emits less carbon to the atmosphere, and oats need less water to grow than almonds and soybeans. Oat milk is made by blending the oats with water, and straining through a nut milk bag or cheesecloth.
Almonds are typically grown in hot climates, and are known for being water hungry. Producers have faced criticism over the water needed from ‘drought-stricken California’. Almonds need six times as much water to grow than oats do, according to the Water Footprint Network. Almonds are ground with water, then strained into almond milk.
Soybean production has been criticised for damaging ecosystems. In the United States, most of the soy produced comes from genetically modified plants, which some people are opposed to. The milk is made by soaking and grinding soybeans, and boiling then filtering out the by-products.
Per cup, almond and soy milk have roughly half the carbon footprint of cows’ milk.
Coconut milk is made from mature coconut flesh and filtered water. The flesh is grated and soaked in hot water. The coconut cream rises and it’s skimmed off, then the rest of the liquid is squeezed through a cheesecloth. Coconut farms are eco-friendly and use little water to produce coconuts, and so have a low carbon footprint.
What is the nutritional value of plant-based milk?
One cup of oat milk contains 130 calories, 4 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of fiber. It is also rich in calcium and vitamin D, and contains no saturated fats.
One cup of unsweetened almond milk contains around 45 calories, 1 gram of protein, 1 gram of carbohydrates, and 3 grams of fat. It is also a good source of vitamin A, contains no saturated fat, and can be supplemented with vitamin D and calcium.
One cup of unsweetened soy milk contains around 90 calories, 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, and 4 grams of fat. It contains as much protein as cow’s milk, yet it’s lower in calories than whole milk. It’s also a good source source of vitamin A, vitamin B-12, and potassium.
One cup of unsweetened coconut milk contains 50 calories, 2 grams of carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fat. It doesn’t contain any protein, but can be strengthened to be a good source of vitamin A, calcium, and vitamin D.
What do consumers say?
We ran a preference steer, asking our meat reducers, vegetarians, and vegans which plant-based milk they’d buy. These are the results:
These results include second and third choices given when the consumer couldn’t choose their preferred option. Interestingly, soy milk ranked lower than oat milk, even though it’s a popular choice in cafes and found on most supermarket shelves.
We ran another preference steer, asking our general consumer community (including meat eaters) what plant-based milk they’d buy. These are the results:
Perhaps surprisingly, the results are very similar. Soy milk is at the bottom of the choices, apart from “None of the above”, which has a larger percentage than the first steer. This makes sense, as the general community are more likely to buy cows’ milk.
With a low carbon footprint and respectable nutritional benefits, it appears that oat milk is a viable alternative to traditional cow’s milk. However, our data shows that oat milk could struggle against almond and coconut milk, so more work is needed from oat milk producers to win market share.