What’s it like to be lactose intolerant in a cow-milk first world? Other than constantly searching for good vegan ice cream and dishing out extra money for a milk substitute because my body can’t properly process lactose, every time I step up to the counter and ask the barista what dairy-free options they have, I never know what I want.
Even after all this time of being lactose intolerant, I still find myself asking in my head, well, which one is the best for my body? Which one is the best for the environment? Which one is healthier and tastier, in general?
I’ve decided to wonder no more. As it turns out, not all milk substitutes are created equally and some even harm the Earth more than others in their making. Whether you don’t drink mammalian milk for health, animal, or environmental reasons, here are some pros and cons of plant- and nut-based milk and other milk alternatives that will help you make an informed decision about what’s best for you.
Nut milk — like almond milk, cashew milk, macadamia milk, and the newly trending hazelnut milk — has lots of pluses. They have a longer shelf life, have a creamy texture similar to cow’s milk, are lower in fat and calories than cow’s milk, and have a good amount of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Macadamia milk is good for the skin and low cholesterol, but low in protein, similar to the other nut milk. Almond milk doesn’t have gluten and is good for your heart and brain because of its omega-3 fatty acids, but unfortunately, almond production is extremely water-intensive and hard on the planet — especially in California, since this is where most of the US’s almonds come from. Cashews are less harsh on the environment and their milk is packed with 50% more calcium than cow’s milk, but it’s typically more expensive than almond milk.
Soy milk uses much less water in its production and has great protein content. Although it once had a bad rap, recent studies have found that a moderate amount of soy intake is healthy, and may actually keep hormones in check. It even has more protein than cow’s milk! One of its only drawbacks is that in its production, many rainforests have been burned to create room for soy farms. When you’re in the store, double-check that the soy milk that is made from organic soybeans grown in the US or Canada to combat this.
From an environmental point of view, oat milk is a fantastic choice. Just like soy milk, oat milk uses much less water than much of the other alternative milk during production. Made from oats, it’s high in protein, has a low impact on the environment (it actually reduces soil erosion), and tastes pretty dang close to the real thing. It’s also excellent for the heart because of zero cholesterol and all the fiber it comes with; it’s also a great source of folic acid and Vitamin E. The downfalls are that it’s a little too thin for baking, it’s high in sugar, and might be a tad pricier than the other dairy-free beverage options.
According to Rachel Hosie of INSIDER, "Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds, and just one hectare of hemp offsets a year's carbon from two cars as it breathes in four times more Co2 than trees; hemp really is good news for the planet.” Made from seeds, they are packed with protein and fiber, unlike most of its milk alternative counterparts. It also delivers healthy fats, minerals, and nutrients like iron and omega acids while being low in sugar and zero in cholesterol — so it may be one of the healthiest of the bunch. It just tends to be pricier!