Got Milk? The Green Alternatives To Cow’s Milk

Got Milk?

So for a while now I have been looking at my milk bottle each morning in disbelief as I see just how much CO2e is being released to produce just 1 pint of the white stuff. Thanks to Tesco’s carbon labelling it is clear to see that milk really isn’t a very green drink at 800g of CO2e per pint.

Now I drink 2 pints every 3 days on my cereal which amounts to roughly 243 pints per year. This volume of milk generates an annual carbon footprint of 194.4kg or roughly 0.2 tonnes. Only a small fraction of my carbon footprint maybe (around 2.4%) but as I have shown before, small changes by enough people can lead to huge combined impacts.

So yesterday, after polishing off my latest 2-pinter, I started to think about what alternatives I might try and how they compare in terms of environmental impact. I came up with the following readily available options that I am going to try and test out (if I can find them):

  1. Soya milk
  2. Rice milk
  3. Oat milk
  4. Hemp milk
  5. Almond milk

Whether you can really call these 5 products “milks” or not I don’t know but I am going to do so for comparison’s sake. I did a bit of searching about to try and find details on the relative green impact each product has and my verdicts are below:

Soya Milk

Finding the carbon footprint of soya milk was a simple process because Tesco happen to produce their own brand versions which use the carbon label.

Product CO2e per Litre CO2e Savings Vs. Cow’s My Annual CO2e Savings*
Tesco Value Unsweetened Soya Drink 400g 72% 145.7kg
Tesco Organic Unsweetened Soya Drink 450g 68% 139.7kg
Tesco Calcium Enriched Soya Drink 550g 61% 127.5kg
Tesco Organic Sweetened Soya Drink 650g 54% 115.3kg

*I throw the last little bit of milk from a bottle away so I am 100% confident that I could stick with 1 litre of soya milk per 3 days instead of the 1.136 litres in 2 pints.

So I could reduce my carbon footprint by up to 145.7kg in a year just by using the greenest of these soya milk drinks instead of my usual semi-skimmed green top. This is the equivalent of boiling 2081 litres of water in an average electric kettle (according to How Bad Are Bananas?).

Rice Milk

It is believed that rice cultivation produces up to 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and it is probably the largest manmade contributor of methane emissions and yet rice milk is likely to still be better for the environment than cow’s milk.

I have yet to find any conclusive figures for the carbon footprint of each carton but I have found that if you purchase Rice Dream, then you are supporting a company that has an effective carbon footprint of zero thanks to their carbon offsetting scheme. Now I do not know whether they offset the greenhouse gases released through the growing and harvesting of the rice of whether they only offset the gases produced through the processing and transporting of the rice along with the general running of the company. I have asked them for this information and will let you know if I hear anything from them.

Update 24/01/12: I have just heard back from Rice Dream and they say the following:

…our carbon footprint offset includes the footprint of our company offices and the transport of all of our products. Buying our rice locally gives us not only the quality and traceability we insist on, but greatly reduces the number of miles the rice has to be transported, thereby minimising our ecological footprint. We also have a environmentally friendly office and warehouse building and we get as much of our electricity as possible from solar panels with the rest coming from renewable sources. All rain water is collected and used and where possible all employees use trains rather than planes and cars with low CO2 emissions.

I can also confirm that 1kg of rice produces 7.2L rice milk.

With 1kg of rice on average generating 4kg of CO2e, you are looking at a carbon footprint of around 550g per litre. Efficient rice production can achieve much lower emissions so let’s say that rice milk is on par with soya milk.

Oat Milk

As with the rice milk, I have not been able to get my hands on an exact figure for the carbon footprint of oat milk but the Australian government has calculated figures for the wheat production up to the factory gate (wheat being a similar crop to oats) – this figure is 200kg CO2e per tonne.

Judging by some recipes I found, you seem to get quite a bit of oat milk for every cup of oats used so I’m fairly confident that the carbon footprint of oat milk is considerably less than that of cow’s milk.

Update 22/10/12: I asked Oatly to provide some sort of number for their carbon footprint and they came back saying:

…have now got some numbers from my colleagues and it seems to be approx. 0.25 kg CO2e per 1 litre oat drink

Oat milk, then, turns out to be more environmentally friendly than soya or rice milk.

Hemp Milk

Hemp is a quite remarkable plant that grows in a great variety of conditions and because it is could rightfully be called a weed, it requires no or almost no herbicide and pesticide. And because the whole hemp plant can be used, the carbon footprint of hemp milk should be very low indeed. Based on everything I have read, hemp milk probably has the lowest environmental impact of any of these options.

Almond Milk

Again it’s been very difficult to locate specific details about the carbon footprint of almond milk but being a plant based product is always a bonus. Many of the world’s almonds are grown in California but Alpro use Mediterranean almonds but since they are almost certainly shipped rather than flown, the food mile argument is almost worth ignoring.

Nutritional Comparison

When it comes to the goodness you get out of each of the milks, one of the main areas to look at is calcium. Cow’s milk is well known to be high in calcium which is essential for strong bones among other things but it seems that most of the alternative drinks, while not naturally high in calcium, are enriched with it.

Calories and sugars are another thing to look at, especially if you need to control your sugar intake carefully. Almond milk has the lowest calorific value and soya milk comes out on top for low sugar content while cow’s milk has high calories and surprisingly high sugars.

For those who are watching their weight, fat content is an essential figure to look for and saturated fat in particular. Cow’s milk is by far the worst offender with far higher saturated fat levels than the others (when looking at semi-skimmed – skimmed is not as bad while full cream is a great deal worse). It is actually rice and almond milks that come top with a tiny saturated fat percentage.

A quick word on fibre; almond milk wins by quite a margin, oat and soya milks are quite good sources of dietary fibre, rice milk is nothing to shout about and cow’s milk has no fibre whatsoever.

Protein is also essential to the body and hemp and rice milks are particularly bad in this respect while cow’s milk and soya milk provide plenty.

Here is a table to allow easier comparison (all figures are per 100ml):

[sociallocker id="3933"]

Type Calcium Calories Sugar Fat Saturates Fibre Protein
Cow’s Milk 124mg 50kcal 4.8g 1.8g 1.1g 0g 3.6g
Soya Milk unstated 31kcal 0.1g 1.9g 0.3g 0.6g 3.4g
Rice Milk 120mg 47kcal 4g 1g 0.1g 0.2g 0.1g
Oat Milk 120mg 45kcal 4g 1.5g 0.2g 0.8g 1g
Hemp Milk 120mg 39kcal 1.6g 2.5g 0.2g <0.1g <0.1g
Almond Milk 120mg 24kcal 3g 1.1g 0.1g 1.6g 0.5g


The Taste Test

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be replacing my usual dairy based milk with these alternatives to see how they compare in taste, texture and how I feel after consuming them.

I started this morning with some Tesco Organic unsweetened soya milk on my cereal and to be honest, thanks to the honey in my cereal, I couldn’t really taste a lot of difference. Maybe when I try it with a cereal that isn’t so highly flavoured I might be able to come to a better conclusion.

I’ll do a follow-up post once I have tried each of the milks for a few days to give my opinion on them and decide whether I am going to switch away from cow’s milk for good.

Want to join me on my journey? Comment below if you use a non-cow alternative or if you are going to make the switch too.

Update: you can now read the results of my experiment here.

Steve (156 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

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