Debunking Dairy Alternatives - Consciously Choosing a Plant-Based Milk Alternative

By Sierra Wen Xin Yeo

For the socially-minded consumer of today, we’re seemingly all too aware of the various pitfalls of consuming products that were once simple, take-for-granted staples in our diet. With an overwhelming influx of information available to the everyday consumer online about the traceability of things we consume - from constituent ingredients, to origin, to genetic makeup, to even factory, farm and labour conditions - it’s no wonder being a conscious shopper can be challenging.

Trying to decide where and how best to spend your money is made even more difficult when there is a nebula of misinformation and doubt to navigate. More so in the coffee industry, which comprises more discerning, ethically-minded customers than the usual. Perhaps at the beginning of the decade (2010) you would get a funny look or two, simply for asking to switch your coffee from dairy-based to a plant-based alternative (PBA). Today, an interest in veganism has increased sevenfold between 2014 to 2019 in the United Kingdom alone - and on the backs of that an increase in consumption of plant-based products, naturally.

Nearly 25% of Britons had indicated a preference for plant-based alternatives in 2019, with many such consumers of the 16-24 demographic believing that dairy farming had a negative impact on the environment. This is reflected in a worldwide surge in the worth of the plant-based beverage market, now worth USD$13.7bn, and is projected to grow to a whopping USD$19.7bn in the next three years.

There are now a myriad of plant-based drink options to choose from at any given cafe, if you’re not prone to drinking coffee black. But of late, those choices come with associated myths, particularly surrounding the sustainability of these alternatives. Does almond drink truly consume more water in production than oat or soy? Does soy really mess with your oestrogen levels? And at the end of the day, are any of these alternatives simply measured by their relativity to dairy, or do they have their own merits?

As an industry, we seem to have accepted, at large, the compatibility of smooth, foamable, specifically-engineered PBAs  as a staple in our menus. It’s encouraging to see that the focus is slowly shifting: we’re no longer fixated on how PBAs taste with our delicate, light-roasted specialty beans, or how closely they emulate the flavour of dairy milk. Rather, there is a growing awareness and momentum behind the demand for PBAs in specialty coffee, grounded in an effort to be more environmentally-minded.

To avoid paralysis by analysis, and to debunk some of the rumours we’ve heard about plant-based alternatives on the market, I chat with my colleague Kate Arthur, resident Nutritionist at Alpro UK, about how we can consume coffee sustainably, as well as making conscious, informed choices about supporting the right plant-based drink suppliers if you do decide to consume a m*lky coffee in cafes.

We’ll be addressing the three most popular PBAs today - namely, soya, almond and oat drink - with a cursory glance at other ingredients on the market, on several facets of sustainability:

  • Environmental Sustainability: how sustainably are the ingredients sourced? What impacts do they have on the ecosystem they’re planted in - and are they negative or positive? How does continuing to consume PBAs look for the planet in general?
  • Social Sustainability: how is the growth and harvest of these ingredients contributing to the welfare of communities, local or otherwise?
  • and lastly, Health: are there any health advantages to consuming PBA over dairy? Is it possible to happily sustain yourself, as it were, on a plant-based diet?

Soya Drink

Probably the most ubiquitous of the plant-based drinks, soya is harvested from soybeans, a legume native to East Asia. Introduced to the European continent in the early 1600s, North America by the late 1700s, and South America in the late 1800s - from which the crop would begin its unfortunate creeping progress across the Amazon rainforest as a result of deforestation - soybean is primarily harvested in Western Europe and Canada for most of the ethically-facing plant-based brands that are associated with specialty coffee.

With its creaminess and only slightly vegetal profile, the proteins present in the drink allow it to emulate the texture and mouthfeel of dairy and the natural choice for initial development as a milk substitute. It’s come a long way from its curdling days, with the addition of stabilisers to provide a buffer, either with regards to the addition of organic acids (from coffee) or an increase in temperature (from heating the m*lk.)

In working for a plant-based company myself, it’s encouraging to see the focus on production turn towards environmental sustainability and transparency. This is reflected in how, for example, Alpro sources 60% of its soybeans locally from within the EU - specifically from a 50km-radius around our processing facility in Issenheim, but also from Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. The other 40% is sourced from Canada, with a focus on low-carbon shipping over water. The emphasis is on sourcing that produces the smallest carbon footprint possible.

It’s important to note that this is distinct from the soy production tied to well-documented reports of rampant deforestation and a significant uptick in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is mostly for human consumption as well as the production of livestock feed - and even that is changing in the light of a keener focus on global sustainability.

In 2019, an article from the BBC referencing a University of Oxford study by Poore and Nemecek demonstrated that soy drink production consumes the least amount of water relative to rice, almond and oat production, much less dairy milk, in terms of the global average. Soy is also a sustainable crop in and of itself: it synthesises nitrogen from the air as part of its natural processes, thus requiring none of the artificial nitrogen fertilisation needed for other crops, resulting in clear ecological benefits both for the local soil and the surrounding biodiversity. Additionally, it tends to be planted rotationally within Europe, to ease pressure on local ecosystems.

In addition, companies like Alpro can choose to pursue certifications like ProTerra, an independent authority committed to promoting sustainability: through the traceability of crops along the supply chain, supporting long-standing relationships between companies, farmers and cooperatives, as well as accrediting crops as non-GMO. This holds ProTerra’s clients to high corporate social responsibility standards. Not too different from the terms and goals we’re used to pursuing in the specialty coffee world!

And finally, as to whether there are any health benefits to sustaining a plant-based diet, particularly in light of the soya-caused oestrogen scaremongering of the last decade, Kate assures me that the science seems to be affirmative. “Soya and other plant-based drinks provide many of the nutrients found in cow’s milk and can contribute positively to a person’s overall nutritional intake,” she says. “In the main, plant-based drinks have… similar levels of proteins to full-fat milk, and often less calories compared to semi-skimmed milk, with low levels of fat, especially saturated fat.”

With regards to soya consumption as part of the average U.K. diet, the numbers come in at about 3g/day, which the Food Standards Agency (FSA) believes is unlikely to cause any health benefits or risks at this level. So long as it's taken in moderation and as part of a healthy balanced diet, you can order that soya flat white with ease of mind!

Almond Drink

Hailed by the health-conscious as the holy grail of plant-based alternatives, the popularity of almond as a milk alternative is almost self-evident.  A plant native to Iran, it has since become mostly produced in the United States, which is responsible for 59% of global almond production mostly centred in California. This is followed by production in Spain, Iran and Morocco, which constitute 18% of that production, and finally smaller producers in Turkey, Italy and Australia.

According to a 2019 Allegra poll of plant-based drink consumption in coffee shops, almond drink was one of the first alternatives to be taken up by specialty cafes, owing to its delicate, lightly-acidic profile, which tends to balance out darker roasts or low-acidity coffees.

But is almond drink truly the health elixir it’s touted to be? Barring customers with nut allergies, the ingredient is often requested for its low caloric content, as well as indexing high for antioxidants. While almond nuts feature many noticeable health benefits like unsaturated fats, flavonoids and protein, almond drink, on the other hand, does not carry an equivalent nutritional value, simply due to processing and dilution.

That being said, most almond drinks are usually fortified with additional calcium and vitamins - and in the case of barista-grade almond drink, stabilisers and hydrocolloids to improve the viscosity and foamability of the product. “With the exception of organic variants, the majority of plant-based drinks are fortified with calcium comparable to that found in cow’s milk, and many are also fortified with vitamins D and B12,” says Kate.

While almond production does contribute the lowest greenhouse gas emissions across the board, it is unfortunately also the most water-intensive. Producing a single litre of almond drink requires an equivalent 371 litres of water, which can cause devastating knock-on environmental effects particularly in hot, dry areas where the nut is cultivated, such as in California. Not to mention the intense scrutiny the U.S. almond industry has come under for the controversial bee mortality rate as a result of a combination of heavy pesticide use and large-scale agricultural methods employed in American almond groves. It’s still worth noting, however, that the production of almond drink is still by far more environmentally responsible, globally, than that of dairy milk.

For plant-based brands in Europe, it makes the most sense to source almonds from the Mediterranean. Doing so presents both a beautiful opportunity and a challenge, as my work with Alpro demonstrates: in addition to its localised nature, almond farming is a community comprising many individual-owned, small farms and traditional methods of planting and harvesting. Most of these farms are 90% rain-fed, supplemented by drip irrigation where necessary, as well as largely dependent on wild pollinators.

That is not to say this industry doesn’t face its own limitations and challenges: almond drink can still be incredibly intensive on the local ecosystem, contributing to wildfires in Spain as in California due to drought conditions and increasingly erratic rainfall. It’s also worth noting that the effects of wildfires on greenhouse gases are virtually impossible to measure. And the responsible crop, if any, is difficult to pinpoint, despite wildfires releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

With this ingredient, it’s always useful to do some research on where the almonds are sourced for each brand, balancing your dietary and lifestyle preferences with the conditions under which they’ve been grown and harvested.

Oat Drink

In the last few years, oat drink has proven to be the poster-child of the plant-based beverages world. A cereal grain in which the seed of the same name is harvested, oats originated in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East. They grow best in temperate climes, owing to a higher average tolerance for rainfall and lower summer heat thresholds, which explains its gradual migration into the Middle East and wider Europe and eventual domestication. This is good news for a large proportion of developed countries in the West, with modern oat production centred in Russia and Canada, and scattered in pockets across Northwest Europe, and Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, among other countries.

The appeal of oat drink lies primarily in the fact that it is, quite simply, an all-rounder. While oats do require relatively more land than its other plant-based counterparts in the Poore and Nemecek study, it indexes middle-of-the-board on water use and GHG emissions - still at least a third of the GHG it takes to produce the same unit of dairy milk. This makes it a favourable and timely addition to the PBA arsenal, in a time of increased efforts to balance our consumption of resources as a species with environmental conservation.

For Alpro, who source their oats from France, Belgium and Finland, they maintain their emphasis on sourcing as locally as possible. Irrigation is not present in the process. In addition, winter cover crops are used as fertiliser in between harvests to maintain soil quality, thereby closing the production loop. In finding ways to balance innovation and sustainability in a market that’s experienced staggering growth in such a short amount of time, one of the downsides, perhaps, is that there’s room for improvement in traceability and transparency in the oat supply chain for most plant-based brands, a factor that seems to be lacking in comparison to other, more established ingredients.

This unprecedented surge in popularity makes oat drink the fastest-growing beverage in recent years. With a creaminess and buttery texture that seems to most closely replicate the mouthfeel of dairy milk, it’s a star player in specialty cafes due to its neutrality, balancing and sometimes enhancing your coffee’s flavour attributes. Not to mention the health benefits: containing protein, fibre and a natural malty sweetness, oats are also chock-full of beta-glucans which help with heart health and lowering cholesterol. “There is overwhelming scientific evidence to show that diets based on plant-based foods are important for overall health, including heart health and weight management, as well as environmental benefits,” Kate confirms.

Not as much protein as soya or regular dairy milk, however, which explains why the foam on the top of oat drinks also tends to destabilise and dissipate fairly quickly. The drink is also prone to splitting if handled incorrectly. For those who see oat milk as their go-to source of protein and plant-based nutrients, Kate is quick to reassure that it’s still possible to sustain a plant-based diet with oat milk, whether it’s vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian. “Plant-based diets, even those where animal-source foods are completely absent, can meet nutritional requirements across the lifecourse,” she says. “With the exception of soya, which is rich in protein, plant based drinks are typically lower in protein compared to cow’s milk. However, this is not an issue for the general population, with current protein intakes in excess of requirements.”

Other Drinks

Looking at all of the main ingredients, it’s certain to say that simply making the switch to a PBA from consuming animal-based alternatives will diminish the size of your footprint significantly, and is on the whole better for the environment, but each ingredient is not without their caveats. What about some of the minor PBAs that we haven’t covered in detail?

If you are committed to switching out dairy for a PBA, always be sure to do ample research on all of the factors involved in production. For example, having coconut drink as a go-to option can seem fairly harmless. Coconut, a tropical plant native to coastal Southeast Asia, was a crop that primarily spread through the tropics on ocean currents and via human migration, and is still mainly produced in those regions - with countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and India leading production today. It has a limited ecological footprint save what it contributes via transportation over water - or so we think. But is that truly the end of the story?

It’s important to think critically about food transportation and the part it plays in contributing to GHG emissions, as well as the effects of monoculture farming when demand for a product spikes due to trends or fads. By replacing naturally occurring biodiversity and ecosystems in order to meet the demand for coconut products, and turning to harsh chemical fertilisers to maintain crops once a commercial farm has reached a profitable size, we may be contributing to a disturbing wider trend of taking more from the land than we are giving back, simply to satiate our appetites for variety.

Always ask questions about whether the brand you are supporting is contributing resources back into the supply chain, whether it’s through research and development, farm innovation initiatives, or community support projects. There are qualifications that companies can pursue to certify that they’re committed to such goals, such as that of the rigorous Certified B Corporation.

The B Corp Certification is only awarded to companies that “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” as their website states. At the time of writing, there are only 3,243 companies, across 150 industries, all over the world that possess this qualification. All companies that are part of the B Corporation community are committed to abolishing inequality, tackling poverty, forging stronger communities, championing environmental conservation and mobilising an economy of new-generation jobs fused with dignity and purpose.

Also, it’s highly recommended to consume what is local to your region if possible, even if it means taking a risk and trying a new ingredient in your coffee - thus reducing the footprint it takes to produce and deliver the ingredient to your area.

It’s also key to consider how byproducts from the processing of a given ingredient are repurposed or disposed of, if any. For example, nearly every part of the hemp plant is usable, making hemp drink a popular choice for consumers championing a zero-waste, low-impact lifestyle. A hardy little plant, it requires little pesticide to grow, and is also an abundant source of nutrients, such as protein, good fats, omega-3, omega-6, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin B1 and calcium.

Rice drink, as covered in Poore and Nemecek’s study, does rank relatively high in terms of GHG emissions and water usage compared to its fellow PBAs, coming in just behind almond drink on water consumption at 54 litres of water per glass, compared to almond’s 74 litres. While still creating a smaller footprint than that of dairy, it will be interesting to keep an eye on how the industry develops and whether it does so accountably and eco-consciously, as more consumers turn away from animal-based alternatives in search of a sustainable alternative.

If your focus, as a specialty consumer or cafe, is simply to find a viable PBA product that best replicates the behaviour of dairy milk in coffee, you can always consider plant-based blends or ingredients that are high in protein, such as cashew or pea protein drink, which will steam smoothly and well. The thick viscosity of both make them applicable in both hot and cold coffees. Be alert to the presence of independent authorities that can verify the traceability of a product, such as the Sustainable Nut Initiative in the case of Alpro’s cashew drink.

Alternatively, consider buying or selling alternatives with an eco-friendly focus, like pea protein drink: similar to soya, it requires little irrigation and fixes nitrogen in soil, reducing the need for intensive fertilisation, as well as requiring up to 6 times less water than almond drink does in production.

All in all, there is an urgent need to re-orient our food system and consumption patterns, even with something as trivial as a cup of coffee. A part of this transition involves an overall shift towards producing and consuming more plant-based material, and less animal-source foods, as Kate tells me. “As developed economies have shifted towards increased consumption of animal-source foods, this has created a potential to overshoot planetary boundaries,” she says. “Plant-based food in general makes more efficient use of the earth’s resources – a key point which should not be overlooked in light of global population growth and climate change.”

So the next time you order a plant-based latte, strike up a conversation with your barista about what brands they stock. The ingredients mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg, and there are no easy answers. There isn’t a right-or-wrong choice to be made, but we should be prepared as we move into a new era of information and sustainability. Hopefully, you can enter the discussion on choosing PBAs with a little more discernment, as well as an open mind to try new products that may just seem to fare better on your personal sustainability scale.

About the Author 

Apart from her full-time job as Alpro UK's Coffee Specialist, Sierra Wen Xin Yeo has her fingers in several pies. Along with founding The Kore Directive, a womxn's coffee professional network and events company based in London in 2018, she also writes in her spare time for coffee publications, which include or have included Perfect Daily Grind, Caffeine Magazine in London, and Barista Magazine among others. Sierra is also certified as a licensed Q-grader.