Walk into any coffee shop or browse any milk case at the grocery store and you'll be sure to find an array of plant-based milks. From nut milks such as almond and macadamia, to the trendy oat milk, these alternative milk options may leave you with questions — are some really more sustainable than others? Should I be concerned about all of the ingredients I read on the labels?
In the latest episode of our podcast, "What You're Eating," we dive deep into the different milks you're putting in your coffee, including plant-based milks and cow's milk, to evaluate the different foodprints of each type. On that episode we speak with food journalist and researcher, Tom Philpott, who has written extensively about almond production and plant-based milks.
Q. Any environmental impacts from the added oils and gums in plant-based milks?
TP: These are used in such tiny amounts that I doubt they move the needle much environmentally. Should also note that they're widely used in loads of processed dairy products, like flavored milk and many yogurts.
Q. What could the future of plant-based milk look like if we are looking for true sustainability?
TP: I'd like to see a move away from feedstocks that can only be grown in a tight range of climates (almonds) to ones that have a broad range, like oats. I also like feedstocks that do well when grown in rotation with other crops — another advantage for oats.
Q. Do you foresee a future where plant-based milk is normalized?
TP: We're already there, or close. Plant milks make up 15%, and growing, of US total milk sales. A ubiquitous union-busting coffee chain now features a specialty product centered on oat milk — you'd have to make a special request to get dairy milk.
Q. What's the most planet-friendly alt milk?
TP: Right now, it's oat milk. Simply rotating oats into the Midwest's ruinous corn-soy duopoly — along with a legume like red clover — could go a long way toward ramping down that region's environmental wreckage. In short, an expansion of US oat agriculture could have large environmental benefits.
That's simply not true of, say, almonds. California almond acreage will have to shrink because of declining water resources. I make the case for oat milk here. (Pardon the overblown headline. Oat milk can't and won't "change everything.")
Q. Is oat milk truly considered healthier/more sustainable?
TP:"Healthy" is a hard one to quantify, but it brings more protein and fiber than most alt milks. I think it wins on sustainability for reasons laid out above.