My relationship with lactose is complicated. A single glass of milk has me scrambling for the nearest bathroom. Nonetheless, I find it nearly impossible to cut all dairy out of my life. When my boyfriend sees me think about putting cheese on my burger, he hides the slices to avoid suffering the consequences of my lactose intolerance.
My relationship with dairy is embarrassing but far from unique. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders estimates that some 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, with symptoms ranging from minor bloating and cramps to inflammatory bowel disease. There’s no small reason the market for non-dairy alternatives explain is booming. But not all milk is created equal, and many non-cow milks are low in calcium, protein and can even be harmful to our environment.
Here’s how milk and its most popular alternatives stack up.
There’s a lot of folks who don’t drink milk and the reasons they avoid milk vary. Many people, including me, avoid it because of lactose intolerance or allergies. Others turn away from milk for ethical concerns and because they mistakenly believe milk isn’t healthy.
Yes, the belief that milk is unhealthy is a misconception. According to well-regarded Boston-based nutritionist Elizabeth Avery, dairy is an excellent source of protein, calcium, potassium and vitamin D—all vital nutrients that need to be replaced in a diet when dairy is absent.
It is true, however, that the dairy industry strains the environment. Studies show that it takes about 144 gallons of water to make a single gallon of milk. Once you consider the water demands and the methane gas the animals produce, you see that dairy farms leave a significant environmental footprint.
Almond milk has some of the health benefits of almonds like vitamin E, delivered with less fat and calories, which is probably why it’s become a popular milk-alternative. However, many almond milks contain high amounts of sugar and very few almonds. Popular almond milk brand Blue Diamond has even been criticized for containing only two percent almonds. Furthermore, unless fortified, almond milk is low in both protein and calcium.
Almonds are a thirsty nut and that thirst is taking a major toll on the environment. A single almond takes about 1.1 gallons of water to produce. It takes about two pounds of almonds to produce one gallon of almond milk. That amounts to nearly 920 gallons of water used per single gallon of almond milk. Because 99 percent of almonds consumed in America come from California, recently stricken by some of the worst droughts in history, almond production’s environmental impact is significant. Farmers are reacting to demand by planting almonds instead of other crops or raising cattle. The ecological consequences could be devastating.
Soy, the original milk alternative, has been around for a long time. Evidence of its consumption dates back to the early Han dynasty in China, though it didn’t become popular or spread globally until the 19th century.
Soy milk contains high levels of protein, fat and carbohydrates making soy milk nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk, but lacks calcium. Additionally, soy milk is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin D and potassium.
The environmental impact of soy milk is an improvement on cow’s milk. A 2011 study by the Institute for Water Education found that a gallon of soy milk requires only 28 percent of the water needed for a gallon of cow’s milk. The study looked at five farms in three different countries and found that, in general, the farms growing organic soybeans used the least water. Especially compared to almond milk, soy milk has a significantly lower environmental impact.
Rice milk is easily digested by infants and small children, which led to its popularity. Unfortunately, it is also lacking in calcium and is high in carbohydrates. Rice milk has the least nutrients and the poorest amino acid profile of all the milk substitutes. Since rice is a food with little nutritional value, it follows that products derived from it are likewise nutritionally void.
It takes about six and a half ounces of rice to make one gallon of rice milk. Since one pound of rice takes about 229 gallons of water to grow, that means 122 gallons of water are needed to grow the rice used in one gallon of rice milk.
While goat’s milk is technically considered dairy, it may still be a good option for people who avoid cow’s milk because their bodies react badly to it. Since it’s derived from goats, it’s obviously not a vegan option, but it is known to cause less inflammation and digestive issues than cow’s milk. It contains far less lactose (the milk sugar that causes intolerances) than cow’s milk and provides a long list of disease-fighting nutrients, including calcium and fatty acids. Moreover, if you’re looking for a high protein alternative, it packs a comparable amount to cow’s milk.
Unfortunately, goat milk’s carbon footprint is equal to cow milk. Goat pasturing habits can lead to significant reduction of soil quality. On the other hand they produce less methane than cattle.