The dairy alternatives debate.

The good, the bad and the udderly.

By Jay Jackson

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What's it all about?

Over the last couple of years, the intake of plant-based ‘milk’ drinks have increased dramatically in the UK and the sector is predicted to rise by another 43% by 2021.

The reasons for people choosing plant-based over dairy are broad. Many of us are concerned about our health, the ethical implications of dairy farming and animal welfare, as well as the effects of industrial scale farming on the environment. Between co2 emissions, poor land use and the huge water consumption needed for industrial dairy production, the impact is vast.

Rude Health Dairy Free Milks

Rude Health Dairy-free Milks

What to choose?

But if we do choose to go ‘dairy-free’ then how do we know which alternative to choose? The supermarket shelves are now stocked high with soya, almond, coconut and oat milk but how do we know which is the best option for us and are any of them better nutritionally (and environmentally) than traditional cow’s milk?

Leading nutritionist, Charlotte Stirling-Reed is keen to point out the importance of the vitamins and minerals from dairy in our diet. “Cow’s milk provides protein, calcium, iodine and B vitamins. Calcium is important for healthy teeth and strong bones as well as muscle function. Meanwhile, B vitamins help keep our nervous system healthy, maintain a healthy immune system and convert the food that we eat into energy.”

Whilst there are many studies and pieces of research that support at least lowering the amount of dairy in our diets, Stirling-Reed’s, and many other nutritionists concern is that some plant-based milks are primarily made of water, so whilst in theory they can form a nutritious part of our diet, drinking them as a replacement can mean we miss out on key nutrients. Some companies add nutrients to plant-based drinks, in a process called fortification. However, this is completely up to the manufacturer’s discretion so it’s us, the consumer, who have to look for those with the added nutrients, something nutritionists seem keen to advise we do.

But even after fortification, are the plant-based milks as virtuous as many of us hope?

Dr Michalis Hadjikakou, who researches the sustainability of food systems at Deakin University’s school of life and environmental sciences says it’s complicated and understandably overwhelming. “There is complexity [and] nuance depending on where people live [and] the specific product that they are looking at – not just the type of milk, but the specific brand. The specific product may have a very different supply chain compared to another very complementary product. So there is no definitive answer.”

When it comes to our planet, some of the growth in the sector has had alarming consequences. The far reaching and devastating impact of soy farming in the Amazon rainforests is perhaps probably the most widely reported, but new industrial farming of almonds is also having a devastating impact, especially in more arid areas such as California.

Oatly Milk

Oatly Dairy-free Milk

There is complexity and nuance depending on where people live and the specific product that they are looking at...

So what should we be pouring in our coffee?

Almond Milk

So to our first contender for our dairy replacement. Almond milk. But knowing the impact almond farming can have environmentally, should we be drinking it at all? Well, there are more sustainable ways of producing almond milk, in less arid climates, but the long term effect is still up for debate and it again it comes down to us, the consumer, to do our research and check the almonds are farmed sustainably. On the health side of things almond milk is looking good. It’s packed with calcium, magnesium and vitamin E and if fortified, you’ll also get a good dose of vitamin D and B12. Not bad at all.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is a strong contender on the environmental side of things with little or no impact. Brilliant news. However, it does fall down on the nutritional side of things compared with almond milk. Oat milk doesn’t naturally contain a lot of the vitamins and minerals we need but, if fortified, it stands up as an environmentally sound, healthy alternative.

Coconut Milk

Lastly, coconut milk. Coconut milk is another hugely popular substitute and again, has a low environmental impact. As with oats, the verdict is out on coconut milks natural nutritional value, so again, check on the pack that it’s been fortified. It also has a relatively high saturated fat content so moderation is key.

Minor Figures Milk

Minor Figures Dairy-free Milk

Where next?

So where do we go from here? It’s tricky right? There’s no easy or correct way to turn. Should we stop drinking cow’s milk? Environmentally perhaps we should, unless we can all cut down and only drink organic milk from low yield suppliers. Health-wise, maybe, maybe not. The jury is still out and the research continues.

But if we do go plant-based then where to turn? Almond milk is pretty strong nutritionally but less so environmentally, depending on where it’s sourced. And then we have oat and coconut milk. Environmentally kind but with the need to be fortified to give us what we need and in the case of coconut milk, high in things we don’t need as well.

Decisions. Decisions.

Ultimately it comes down to personal choice and what matters to you most.

That’s why at Mother we strive to give our customers an informed choice, helping you make a decision that’s just right for you. We’ll always be transparent about the products we stock, offering full ingredient and nutritional information at the tap of a screen, and will always try and give you lots of options to choose from. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

It's what we call, intuitively smarter snacking.