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Daily Footprint, #21 – Milk, Part 2: Comparison of plant-based milks

Greetings! In this post, I’m going to take a look at the social and environmental impact of several plant-based milks. But since the purpose of the Green Stars Project is to encourage you all to start rating stuff, I won’t attempt to be encyclopedic (not that I could be). Besides, my opinion is just one opinion and my choices are influenced by location. But I’ll try to cover some of the most important issues that I’ve come across in relation to the raw materials (the plants). I’ll also cover one commercial product: Ripple, a new brand of high-protein milk made from yellow split peas, sunflower oil, and a few other ingredients.

The non-dairy milk section in Whole Foods (left) and two brands that I tried recently.

Sustainability of milk packaging

I might as well start with this since it’s the first thing that hits you when you’re standing in the non-dairy section of your local store, feeling chilly and overwhelmed. I would rank packaging choices as follows:

  1. None! Make it at home
  2. A (returnable) glass bottle – I’ve read of plant-based milks in glass bottles but haven’t yet come across any that are collected and refilled (as Strauss dairy does).
  3. Recycled plastic. The Ripple bottle is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic (PET, #1) and is completely recyclable, including the label.
  4. Bottles made from virgin (new) plastic.
  5. Cartons (e.g., Tetra Pak) may seem like a more eco-friendly choice at first since they are mostly cardboard, but they also contain around 20% plastic. This means that they can’t be composted, and recycling (if available in your area) often only recovers the paperboard portion.

Environmental impact of milk

Where does the protein in milk come from?

Diversion time! It’s interesting to think about the origin of protein. The main thing that sets it apart from carbs and fats is that protein contains nitrogen. This nitrogen ultimately comes from the air (which is 78% nitrogen), but by two very different routes:

Route A: Plants from the legume family can collect nitrogen directly from the air, thanks to microbes on their roots.

Route B: Plants that can’t fix their own nitrogen can still assimilate nitrogen from the soil. Most farming involves the application of a nitrogen-based fertilizer (or manure) to increase yields. Agriculture was revolutionized by an industrial process invented around 1910 by two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. The Haber-Bosch process involves the reaction of nitrogen (from air) with hydrogen to make ammonia. The hydrogen is usually made from natural gas.

So a large amount of the protein in a typical diet is dependent on natural gas.

The best way to shift away from this is to eat legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts).

High-protein milks

If you want milk with protein content about the same as cow’s milk (8 grams per 240 mL serving) then the most likely bets are milk made from a legume, such as soy milk or Ripple milk (yellow peas). A life cycle assessment (LCA) performed on behalf of Ripple milk compares the carbon and water footprints for these three options. Soy milk and Ripple milk have about the same carbon footprint (GHG emissions per liter of milk) while the footprint for cow’s milk is about three times higher. Cow’s milk also had the highest water footprint, while soy milk had the lowest. On the basis of just this data, soy milk is the best choice, followed by Ripple, with cow’s milk in a distant last place.

Legumes: organic or not?

Choose organic soy milk (especially in the US) if you would like to avoid neonic pesticides, which are almost certainly harmful to bees. Ripple currently uses conventionally grown yellow peas for their milk but an organic version may be on the cards if they can find a good supplier. However, Ripple does argue that organic yellow peas may not be more sustainable than conventional peas (you can find this info in their FAQs – it relates mostly to tilling, soil erosion, and fertilization). Ripple Foods CEO, Adam Lowry (who helpfully responded to all of my questions) mentioned that they sometimes use organic sunflower oil, but not always. I’d like to see a full commitment to organic sunflower oil since sunflowers (like soy) are often treated with neonics.

Medium-protein milk

Hazelnut and hemp milk both contain a moderate level of protein: around 2 and 4 grams per serving, respectively. Neither of these are legumes, but I would rank them both highly as sustainable crops. I covered hemp before, in a post on sustainable clothing, so take a look if you want to read about the environmental benefits of hemp.

Hazelnuts are one of the most eco-friendly tree nuts – they can tolerate poor soil and don’t require heavy agricultural inputs. Hazelnut trees also sequester a lot of carbon in the soil and protect against erosion thanks to their extensive root systems. Be aware that in Turkey, which supplies more than 60% of the world’s hazelnuts, there are serious concerns over the prevalence of child labor. Hazelnuts that are grown in Oregon or Italy can be a good choice, or if you have a garden and are willing to wait, then planting your own tree is supposed to be very rewarding. The perennial hazelnut tree also holds a lot of potential for providing a sustainable income for people living in mountainous regions; Mountain Hazelnuts has a large project working towards this in Bhutan.

Oats can also be made into a medium-protein milk (around 2.5 grams per serving) and qualify as a sustainable (and very affordable) choice.

Low-Protein Milk

Rice, coconut, almond, and cashew milk have the lowest protein content at 1 gram or less per serving.

Almonds have been covered extensively in the media because they require a lot of water. The LCA performed for Ripple Foods also looks at water input for almonds, but it’s expressed as per gallon of milk on a protein basis.

If you don’t care that much about how much protein is in your milk, then you should divide the number for almond milk by 8 (since it contains about 8-times less protein than Ripple or cow’s milk), giving you 3283 gal/L, actually less water than is required to grow the peas for a gallon of Ripple milk. However, peas are grown in wetter areas while most almonds are grown in drought-addled California, so yellow peas are probably a better option. Here’s a good report on global average water footprints for many plant crops. It’s also worth bearing in mind that 1.4 million beehives are trucked to almond farms in California each spring in order to pollinate the trees that provide 80% of the world’s almond supply. This could be seen to have some upsides, in that almond growers have a vested interest in improving the honey bees’ situation. On the other hand, stress on the bees caused by the transportation (and exposure to fungicides and insecticides on non-organic farms) may not be helping their situation.

Cashews – human rights issues.

Cashews requires a lot of manual labor to process, and there are a few big issues around the world – this ranges from working conditions and pay in India and Africa to the bizarre case in Vietnam where thousands of people are imprisoned in “drug rehab centers” and put to work processing cashews. Some groups are working to improve on this.

The African Cashew Alliance launched a seal program in 2012 – a stamp endorsing food safety and labor standards.

You can buy cashews from Equal Exchange that are organic and fair trade.

If in doubt about sourcing, ask. I wrote to Forager twice to ask about their cashew sourcing but they didn’t respond, so I’m ruling them out for now.

Bottom line – which milk is more ethical?

The bottom line is that plant milks are more sustainable than dairy milk. Many of the environmental issues of almonds can be avoided (e.g., having beehives in the orchard, minimizing pesticides and fungicides, and watering sparingly, as is often practiced in Spain) in which case they become quite a good crop, with a low carbon footprint. The issues with cashews and hazelnuts (human-rights) are also supplier/region specific, so in all three cases it’s important to be aware of sourcing. I think milk from legumes will grow in popularity – peanut milk is something you don’t come across every day but it is possible to make at home. Researchers in Ghana have been testing a mixture of two legumes, peanut and cowpea for use in non-dairy milk chocolate.

Of the commercial brands, I think Ripple is a fairly good choice, although there is room for improvement. Similar to the story on peanut butter cups, there are a few good commercial products available but if you want to do away with the packaging (and the “filler” ingredients) then making at home is the best option.

My top choice (based on my location) is still homemade hazelnut milk made from Oregon hazelnuts – this post contains a very simple recipe. I do think there are many good choices though and, besides hazelnuts, I’m most interested in making milk from hemp, oats, and various legumes – possibly in combination 🙂 Until next time!


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