At the end of 2018, a shortage of Oatly, the oat milk brand that sky-rocketed in popularity two years prior, caused an outcry in New York City. In 2019, I poured a hefty serving of oat milk into jasmine green tea at Valentine Dining Hall and found my next favorite latte add-in. But all new trends should be questioned. Oat milk is just the latest star in the non-dairy milk market. Food Navigator-USA, a leading online news source for the food industry, reported that plant-based milk sales in the U.S. took up 13 percent of all milk sales in 2018, a 9 percent increase over the course of a year. These plant-based milks are held in the cultural consciousness as green, clean and hip, and the potential health and environmental effects tend to be amplified. If we bring these conceptions back down to earth, do the stereotypes hold? It turns out that the answer is much more complicated than we might imagine.
Dietary concerns are a major driver behind the rise of plant-based milks. There are apprehensions on both sides of the equation — many worry about the health effects of dairy milk, while others worry about the health effects of cutting out dairy milk. Milk has long been touted as the staple of a well-rounded diet, but this conception is rapidly changing. When Meghann Jurkowski, menu coordinator/nutritionist at the college, wrote her master’s project on the health benefits of dairy milk, most studies pointed towards an overall positive effect of milk on the body.
Over time, she’s seen “a shift in studies” that suggest milk may have fewer positive effects than initially thought. For one, “a large majority of humans are lactose intolerant to some degree,” which explains why many might feel agitated after a glass of milk. Another potential issue is the fat content in milk — though Jurkowski is wary of the tendency to characterize all fats as harmful. “Fat and carbs tend to get a bad rep … [but] we need those to survive. It’s good fats and bad fats” that determine health benefit, she said.
Dairy products contain saturated fats and cholesterol, which can have negative effects on the body in the long term. Plant-based milk is generally much lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and might not contain any depending on the brand and milk type. While she doesn’t see dairy milk as necessarily harmful, Jurkowski says she doesn’t drink dairy milk anymore. “There are just better things we can put in our bodies that don’t contain things that raise our cholesterol and lipid profile,” she noted.
At the same time, these negative effects of dairy milk are minimal, and there’s no need to eliminate dairy from our diets simply for health purposes. “Can it be part of a healthy, balanced diet? Yeah,” says Jurkowski. “We can have a little bit of everything. Balance is key.” Some differences between non-dairy milks stay relatively constant across the board. Rice milk tends to be the most carb-heavy, but these are complex carbohydrates, which are important in our diets and distinct from refined carbohydrates. Soy milk has 7 grams of protein per serving, which is most similar which out of plant-based milks is most similar to cow milk’s. Hemp milk has the next highest protein content, and the product was actually brought to Amherst to provide a more allergen-friendly milk alternative high in protein. Oat milk follows with 2 grams of protein, and rice and almond milk each have 1 gram.
All the plant-based options tend to have a low fat profile — almond milk has slightly more due to the omega-3 fats in almonds — but more importantly, they are generally made up of the healthy unsaturated fats. Most of the options contain iron as well, with oat and almond milk typically having the highest iron content.
Jurkowski says that milk doesn’t provide any nutrients that can’t be found elsewhere, and there’s consequently no need for non-dairy milks to make up for all the nutrients dairy milk provides. As such, the focus on protein and calcium in milk alternatives seems particularly over-blown.
Otherwise, overall health benefits will depend on the brand and production process. Ideally, the healthiest option is to make your own milks from scratch, but this is a near-impossible feat in a college dorm. Luckily, many brands offer products that aren’t excessively processed. Jurkowski says that “the ingredients profile of what we have on campus is pretty clean,” and at home she even drinks the same Planet Oat Milk brand that the college carries.
With so many companies offering different plant-based milk products, it’s important to read the ingredients. Jurkowski recommends unsweetened options; she encourages people to look for “super simple” ingredient profiles and to avoid carrageenan, an additive used to thicken many plant-based milks that can upset people’s stomachs. Newly developed allergies are another reason many switch to a new option — whether to dairy, soy or any of the nuts that make up nut milks. Oat, rice and hemp milk are generally seen as the most allergy-friendly. Of course, other dietary restrictions will always determine the milk you choose. For instance, those with celiac disease should make sure the oats are certified gluten-free. “It’s all about being conscious of your body, but once you find your brand, you’re smooth sailing,” says Jurkowski.
Concerns over environmental impact have more recently been a huge driver of the growing switch to plant-based milks. While there are some broad trends we can draw conclusions about, in our complex food production system it’s difficult to trace the impact of a specific food back to the source. In 2019, the BBC reported that the global production of dairy milk uses three times the greenhouse gasses used in the production of rice, soy, milk or almond milk. A 2018 research paper also estimated that carbon opportunity costs decrease by half when one switched from a vegetarian diet to a diet without beef or dairy. One could imagine that in comparison, all plant-based milks are safe options environmentally. Yet even among plant-based milks, there is high variation in environmental impact. One life cycle analysis of oat milk showed promising news about the effects of oat milk — though this study was published by the leading oat milk company, Oatly, which calls the extent of accuracy and bias into question. Edible Brooklyn, a Brooklyn-based food magazine and website, reported from this study, which used data from conventional, non-organic Canadian dairy producers, that “oat milk results in 80 percent lower GHG emissions and 60 percent less energy use compared to cow’s milk.” Oat milk has also been known to use less water than other plant-based milk crops.
Even if the full environmental impact of oat production remains unclear, it certainly doesn’t reach the scale of environmental harm in almond and soy production. There’s been a recent increase in awareness of the environmental damage in almond production, caused in particular by water loss. The New York Times reported that roughly 15 gallons of water are used to make 16 almonds, which is an enormously high water burden for a crop. This is particularly problematic in “drought-stricken California, where more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown,” the University of California San Francisco reported. The widespread use of pesticides in almond production also poses a threat to drinking water supplies in California, and altogether takes water resources and land that could be used for less water-intensive crops. Water loss, at the very least, is an outcome that can be avoided with oat milk — The New York Times reported from the Water Footprint Network that almond production uses six times the water as oat production.
Soy has also been “environmentally insidious” over the years, says biology and environmental studies Professor Rachel Levin. Though the U.S. is the leading producer of soy, Brazil was the second largest producer for many years prior. Soy production in South America has contributed significantly to the destruction of the Amazon, with deforestation for soy peaking in the mid -2000s before conservation efforts finally cut back production. While Amazon deforestation for soy has decreased since, the devastating impacts of soy production still continue in the Amazon.
And yet, despite all the negatives of soy production, it’s unlikely that most of this soy ends up in soy milk, or even soy food products. The Union of Concerned Scientists reported that 70-75 percent of soybean production goes towards livestock, which may be an underestimation based on other accounts. While the effect of soymilk cannot be decoupled from the deforestation of soy production, these studies overall point much more towards a larger underlying issue: the feeding of crop to sustainment of livestock that will be used for consumption. For Levin, this sustaining of livestock for animal products, and in particular for meat, is the root issue: “There’s been some great analyses, which show, if we weren’t feeding animals, we’d have a lot more food available.” Feeding crops to meat sources is simply less efficient that eating food sources directly — “we lose energy as you go up the trophic level,” Levin says. The question of dairy milk’s full environmental impact becomes a question of how much those products are eventually used for dairy versus beef production, an area which needs further inquiry.
While cow milk production has negative environmental effects, it is certainly not the environmental disaster that is beef production. When you eat beef, “you’re actually eating the animal so there’s actually no continued production, and it’s a very high environmental impact,” says Levin. A cow that is grown to produce dairy can provide milk again and again, suggesting a more sustainable production of resources than meat. While dairy may not be the main contributor, its production plays a role in the cost of sustaining animals for animal products. Dairy accrues environmental costs that many plant-based milks do not, and more inquiry is needed to determine the full extent of dairy milk’s negative environmental impact.
It would be a lie to deny that my interest in this topic was initially spurred by taste. Through a blind taste test I conducted with all the milk options at Valentine Dining Hall, I discovered that every milk option is recognizably distinct, and that none taste quite like cow milk. Oat milk has a creamy and subtle taste to it, pleasant on its own and complementary rather than overpowering when added to drinks. The soy milk is similarly creamy in texture but more earthy in taste. Hemp milk has the most distinct flavor, with hints of sesame and a strong aftertaste that I can only describe as slightly herbal. Rice milk tends to be the most thin, watery and sweet. While perhaps the least reminiscent of milk, it makes for a nice drink with its own merits. As I’m allergic to nuts, I enlisted some taste-testers for the almond milk, which they described as “watery” and “okay.” It’s impossible to pick out one single “best” option for milk alternatives, as it is all highly individualized based on dietary needs and tastes.
If there are any major points that stand out, it’s that almond milk and soy milk both have drawbacks in their link to environmental damage. Rice milk tends to lag slightly behind the others in nutritional content, and it tastes the least like dairy milk if one is looking for a close substitute. Hemp milk’s strong taste can be a deterrent for some, and the brand carried at Valentine also has 1 gram of unsaturated fat per serving, which is higher than many plant-based milks (though still less than dairy milk).
In this particular moment, oat milk is making a case for itself as the most popular milk alternative for the majority of the population. I am an oat milk fan, but with skepticism, for there is no telling what we’ll uncover about its production or health effects. Based on an individual’s political surroundings, cow milk might be contextualized as either foundational to a well-rounded diet or devastating to your body and the environment, taking on a moral undertone. Likewise, non-dairy alternatives may be seen as the hallmark of “clean-eating” or a frivolous expense for liberals.
Though we don’t enjoy admitting it, the market drives so many of the conceptions we hold about food. In light of trends, it’s important to take a step back and remember what it is we’re actually talking and wondering about. In the case of oat milk, simply a beverage made from oats blended in water, it seems like a perfectly fine drink option, at least for the time being.