top of page

Plant Milks Offer Vastly Superior Choice to Dairy Products

Photo courtesy PlantifulGrub

Some of the examples of plant milks one can enjoy with vegan chocolate chip cookies.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

Soy milk. Oat milk. Coconut milk. Rice milk. Almond milk.

The varied array of plant “milks” available as ethical, green, and healthy alternatives to dairy milks has become increasingly popular—at least 17 varieties now exist—and counting. In the USA and Australia, some brands have even been advertised on television network commercials (for instance, Sweden’s Oatly plant-milk company bought a 30-second spot on CBS-TV’s much-watched Superbowl in February 2021). Additional varieties now available: banana milk, hemp milk, hazelnut milk, cashew milk, peanut milk, walnut milk, macadamia milk, pistachio milk, sesame milk, flax milk, spelt berry milk, yellow pea milk, kale milk, and quinoa milk. (Some experts contend that soy milk and oat milk have the lowest eco impacts. Depending on your taste buds and nutritional needs, you can experiment and discover the best overall choice in vegan milk for you. Plain, vanilla, and chocolate flavors are made, and you can prefer either sweetened or unsweetened.)

While newly popular in recent years, plant milks have actually been around for centuries. “Milk” derived from plants dates back to such examples as North African horchata, made from tiger nuts, which spread to Iberia by 1000 CE; almond milk in the Mideast Levant region in the 13th century; soy milk in China in the 14th century; and nut milk made for centuries by the Wabanaki Indians and other tribes, in what is now the US Northeast.

In fact, plant milks have long been used in places with a high prevalence of protective lactose intolerance, such as East Asia, where the condition of having severe difficulty breaking down the sugar called lactose prevails in 90 percent of people. Also, all but one of 35 plant milks tested by the magazine Consumer Reports did not contain the seaweed-based thickener carrageenan—which can trigger inflammation in people afflicted with colitis or inflammatory bowel disorders. Having milk allergies and avoiding pesticides and antibiotics often present provide added reasons to shun dairy.

Plant milks are suitable for all ages. (For example, oak milk in particular works well for infants of mothers unable to provide breast milk. However, oats are often sprayed with Monsanto’s notorious cancer-causing Round-Up pesticide, so be sure to seek out organic whenever feasible.) And plant milks can be used as substitute recipe ingredients in cakes and other baked goods, where virtually no one would even notice the difference. (Consumers can also choose from an ever-widening non-dairy variety of vegan cheeses, vegan creams, vegan yogurts, vegan ice creams, and vegan ice milks.)

As dairy’s market dominance continues to slip, as it has for decades overall, dairy interests fume and kvetch, sometimes aggressively lobbying for bans on plant milks labels. In the EU, when an even stricter language-ban proposal came up, Fridays For Future founder Greta Thunberg strongly opposed it, witheringly tweeting in February 2021, “We are in a climate and ecological emergency. What should we do? I know! Let’s ban plant-based dairy from displaying allergen information, being sold in cartons, using images of their own products. And explaining the climate impact of food. That’ll fix it.” In late May 2021, the EU backtracked and withdrew the tighter language ban proposal. But unfortunately, the earlier dairy-lobbied EU ban on such terms as “oat milk” and “vegan cheese” remains in place. The European Court of Justice back in June 2017 upheld the 2013 EU vegan-alternative names ban regulations, which grants relatively few exceptions, such as for peanut butter. The case had pitted the German “consumer group” VSW against the German food firm Tofu Town (makers of Soyatoo Tofu Butter and Veggie Cheese, for instance), and was referred from a German court.

Of course, Greta Thunberg sets the standard as usual by being an ethical vegan, first and foremost. She and other vegan advocates know well the hidden, grim, unethical realities of the dairy industry, behind the misleading façade of catchy slogans (such as “Milk does a body good”) and celebrity “milk mustache” advert campaigns. To produce cow’s milk, for example, cows must be forcibly impregnated, usually starting at age 2, and typically by using what the dairy industry brazenly and nonchalantly referred to for decades as the “rape rack.” While that term is lately being discouraged, the practice continues unabated.

When calves are born nine months later, they are typically taken away from their mothers within 12 hours to three days, so the milk intended for the calves can be confiscated twice daily—usually by automated milking machines in “milking parlors”—for human use. (The machines often induce painful mastitis inflammations on the teats and udders of the cows.) Meanwhile, mothers and their calves are visibly traumatized by being permanently parted. Male calves usually become either “baby beef” or veal calves, in the latter case living just for some five to six months, either in a veal crate or in close indoors quarters, and deprived of exercise, sunshine, and iron so their “meat” will be white, not red. Meanwhile, female calves are consigned and confined to small huts to later become dairy cows. When the peak milk production of cows passes, typically at about five years, they are unceremoniously shipped off, crammed into trucks, to the terrors of the slaughterhouses, destined to become cheap ground beef and hamburgers. By contrast, cows can naturally live to be 20 to 25 years old.

Yet, many corporations remain clueless, or even hostile, to plant milks. The noted actor and vegan James Cromwell (who starred in the 1995 pig-centric film “Babe”) wrote about the dairy industry in a Washington Post op-ed essay, after he had glued his hand to a Starbucks counter for a half-hour to protest the coffee chain’s “upcharge” of as much as 80 cents extra for vegan milk. In the piece, published on Saturday 21 May 2022, Cromwell stated, “Cows endure heart-breaking and horrifying abuse on dairy farms. These animals aren’t fountains. They aren’t constantly producing milk and hoping some solicitous human will relieve them of it. Like humans and other mammals, cows lactate only after giving birth. Dairy farms forcibly [impregnate] them with a metal rod and make them go through pregnancy and delivery, only to drag their newborns away from them so that the milk meant for their baby can be sold for [coffee] lattes instead. It’s a traumatic experience for both mother and calf. Mother cows often cry out for their missing babies for days, while the terrified infants are commonly shoved into veal crates that don’t even have enough room for the calves to turn around. They suffer no less than humans would if subjected to the same thing.” He went on to note a dairy industry study finding that by the time cows are slaughtered, almost 50 percent were lame, caused by standing chained or confined on concrete floors in “milking parlors,” typically in their own waste.

Dairy also exacts a heavy toll on our planet’s ecosystems and exacerbates global warming., as Greta Thunberg and James Cromwell both noted. In addition to the high environmental costs, some of which are noted in the chart below, dairy cows produce copious quantities of untreated solid waste, which pollutes water and air. When they are slaughtered, once their economic utility declines, the discharges from abattoirs—full of blood, feces, et cetera— also foul waters.

Environmental Impacts of Dairy and Plant-Based Milks, 2013 -- CHART WILL BE FIXED!!

Type of milk

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Per Liter

Land Use Per Liter

Freshwater Use Per Liter

Eutrophication Per Liter

Dairy milk