Milk alternatives: hazelnut, rice, soya and almond milk.
Milk alternatives: hazelnut, rice, soya and almond milk.
Image: 123RF / geografika

Taking the milk destined for another mammal’s offspring is something humanity – or some of it - has done for around 10,000 years. Despite this, it can often feel somewhat weird, slightly perverse, even if you have grown up with the stuff. For all sorts of reasons, there’s something more disturbing about imbibing it than eating the flesh of other animals. Now that the horrors of the industrial dairy industry are more vivid for many, it is even more disturbing.

If there is a milk of human kindness, our mainstream dairy industry is not where you’ll find it. Add on the current (usually simplistic) environmental debates around animal farming and it’s no wonder dairy, and milk in particular, is under threat. Enter Plant-Based Milks (or “mylks” but I’m sorry I can’t keep writing that; it hurts me) as our saviours. Rice milk. almond milk, oat milk and (waning) soy milk are big business. Huge business, actually.    

While avoiding industrial feedlot dairy can only be a great idea, for ethical and environmental reasons, the notion that the plant-based alternatives are healthier is somewhat ludicrous. Unless you happen to be intolerant, actual milk is a whole lot more nutritious. Is that perhaps why the “mylks” are desperate to tell you what they don’t have in them, rather than what they do? Almond milk, for example, contains only around 2% almonds.

It’s really not clear how moving to plant-based milk is saving the world, unless you know how the crop is being farmed

The health worries around dairy are in large part a direct result of the unfounded fears around saturated fat and cholesterol. There is, in fact, not a shred of proof that either saturated fat or “high” cholesterol have any bearing on heart disease. On the other hand, there’s also no proof milk is anything like an essential part of the human diet. Millions of people live very healthily without it. 

Plant-based products are actually great examples of our ability for double-think. They’re touted by every second “clean-green-living” instagrammer and health shop as being better for the planet and yet these milks are highly processed foods, about as inefficient a way of using almonds or rice as you could hope to get, usually made miles away from the end-user, and generally produced using the same fossil-fuel based conventional agriculture as any other bad farming currently destroying top-soil and releasing carbon.

What we should really be doing is comparing all bad farming – whether almond milk, meat or cow’s milk – to good, regenerative farming. Why isn’t the conversation about how massively water-intensive a crop almonds are, with each nut taking around 3.8 litres of water to produce? Or that global rice crops are one of the largest sources of methane emissions? It’s really not clear how moving to plant-based milk is saving the world, unless you know how the crop is being farmed.

However, these details might soon be irrelevant. Fads are a moving target: just as soy was overtaken by rice milk, just as almond milk was the new rice milk, and just as Oatley, the Swedish plant-based milk with an almost cult-like following, is becoming the new almond milk, we can predict that in two or three years, Oatley’s light will dim and charcoal-activated corn milk will be the next big thing. One thing is constant: the hefty price tag.  

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