Milking the Environment! Why are there so many Milk Substitutes?

Why are there so many milk substitutes
Why are there so many milk substitutes

Ever wondered what’s up with milk and why are there so many milk substitutes floating around nowadays? So did we. Dairy milk is such a complex substance. Because of the many wonderful products made with dairy, milk is one of the most highly regulated foods within the industry. Because it’s so highly regulated, the FDA has established the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), a 449 page document, to detail the definition, harvest, production, sanitization, and controls (along with many more) for the proper handling of milk. Despite this amount of regulatory input, the milk substitute market was valued at $20.5 billion in 2020.

To understand why there are so many milk substitutes, it is important to first understand milk. Dairy milk and its many sub-products are delicious. I am writing this as someone who is highly lactose intolerant, and yet I regularly find myself willing to risk the potential lactose induced unpleasantries to enjoy a scoop of ice cream on a hot day. In its many forms, there’s a product for almost everyone, from sweet to savory. However, the proteins found in milk are listed on the FDA’s top 8 allergens, further limiting those who can consume dairy. Acknowledging those that are lactose intolerant and/or allergic, there are undoubtedly delicious items made from the many different types of dairy products enjoyed by people throughout the country.

Nature’s work and millions of years of evolution are highly evident when examining milk. This substance contains an incredible amount of macro and micro nutrients, intended for quick and easy digestion by a mammal baby. It contains so much, in fact, that these proteins are delicately held in solution. Small changes to the solution cause proteins and fats to coagulate which is how we ultimately make cheese and many other products. There are many articles and opinions presented online that bash milk production and I think it is important to acknowledge milk as an incredible, nutritious substance.

So why is there such a push away from dairy with so many milk substitutes? Within the food industry, billions of dollars and countless hours of research have been invested to find milk alternatives. Dietary restrictions aside, the main reason for the shift from dairy, however, is its increasing toll on the environment. As the agricultural footprint of animal husbandry becomes more understood, research is showing that products such as milk require a lot of land, water, and emissions to produce. The easiest way to understand the relationship between farmed animal dairy and its plant-based substitute is to relate them to one another.  Let’s say you need a certain amount of land to grow soybeans. Those soybeans can be used for either soy milk or feed for dairy cows. Adding up the time it takes for a dairy cow to grow, combined with the animal’s feed to food conversion ratio, and soy processing, it will always be more efficient to simply grow soybeans to make soy milk, simply limiting the number of factors from the equation.

To highlight this relationship, water withdrawal is one of the easiest ways to see the input costs associated with different types of milk production. Here is a graphic to show the necessary water withdrawal required to make different types of milk:

Everything we use, wear, buy, sell, and eat takes water to make. An item’s water footprint measures the amount of water consumed and polluted during all stages to produce that particular item. A product’s water footprint is an estimation that tells us how much pressure that product puts on freshwater resources. Water is only one measure of how a product can impact its surrounding environment though. There are a myriad of other inputs and influencing factors that can alter a product’s overall environmental footprint such as land use and requirements, growth time, growth, harvest and production emissions, and more.

This multifaceted and multidisciplinary overview of a product’s environmental footprint inhibits the interpretation of science driven data and response. It’s estimated that the average American eats about nine ounces of meat a day, and that if people would make the switch to a completely plant based diet, this can reduce green-house gas emissions in some areas up to 73%. This statistic reflect an extreme in the spectrum. It is unrealistic to think that everyone will/and can suddenly make the cultural shift to eliminating animal products from their diet. In addition to this, animal products are not an environmental enemy. The simple fact is that humans have been practicing animal husbandry for thousands of years to excellent success. However, excessive consumption of those animal products has caused a serious imbalance in our food supply through our consumer culture, political lobbying, and agricultural subsidies. In the words of Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

This is the reason that milk substitutes have such an incredible market influence. Most of the foods we eat in the U.S. are based around consuming animal based products. Dinner parties center around charcuterie boards; with holidays come a holiday roast; outings and sports events feature iconic hotdogs and hamburgers (like Memorial Day and the upcoming 4th of July), ice-cream and cheeses! The animal protein rich diet is engrained in our affluent culture while the food industry struggles to maintain an overextended supply.

This blog post started out of a curiosity from my neighbor who was looking for the ‘best’ milk to drink for the  environment. The truth is, if you are going to drink milk products with regularity, any dairy milk substitutes you prefer (whatever you like the best) is already a huge help for the environment. Each alternative milk has its own drawbacks such as varying amounts of associated emissions, water consumption rates, land degradation, nutritional imbalances etc… However, alternate milk products, almost indiscriminate of choice, are still more beneficial for the environment than the animal product counterpart.

An Oxford study found that cow’s milk produced three times more emissions than any other milk substitute. That being said, when you get that craving and absolutely need a glass of the original milk, scoop of ice cream, or serving of cheese, those products in moderation still serve as a fantastic food. Thinking of animal products as an occasional rare treat rather than a diet staple is the key to the cultural shift in food consumption that will most benefit the environment.

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