Dairy products have long been a staple of diets around the world. For decades, sporting the infamous “milk mustache” has been a sign of what schools teach to be a healthy, nutritious choice. However, new science cautions against the 3 per day guideline, for both nutrition and environmental reasons.
Instead of reaching for dairy creamer, cheese or butter, consider trying out one of these dairy alternatives for healthy, eco-friendly living:
Yes, you read that right. No, it isn’t as bad as you think! Cockroach milk isn’t made like traditional dairy alternatives. The whole idea comes from a group of scientists in India who discovered that the Pacific Beetle Cockroach has a special protein in its gut. According to their research at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, this protein is then found in a milk-like substance that the cockroaches give their young.
What makes this protein remarkable is its nutritive value. The cockroach protein crystals are “like a complete food,” says Sanchari Banerjee, a scientist from the team. “They have proteins, fats, and sugars. If you look into the protein sequences, they have all 3 amino acids.”
Instead of drinking the cockroach milk directly (which wouldn’t be scalable anyways), scientists are looking to incorporate the protein crystals into peoples’ diets, either through supplementation or by adding it to food. The protein crystals’ high caloric value and its slow-burning properties make it a potentially huge help for those with nutritional deficiencies. So although it isn’t hitting the markets quite yet, keep an eye out for this new addition to the superfood master list. It is also essential to keep in mind that the current method of extracting the protein is harmful to the beetle, which is another hurdle that scientists are working to overcome. The process used for now makes it not a good option, but the potential (once cruelty-free) could offer some compelling nutritional benefits.
Cockroach milk is nutritionally dense, making it a potentially life-saving supplement for those with nutritional deficiencies
Hemp is a widely misunderstood plant. Many people associate it with marijuana, but hemp milk is actually made using the hemp seed, which is highly nutritious. Hemp seeds are high in calcium, protein, omega 3 and omega 6, and offer a borderline sweet, nutty flavor (that won’t get you high).
Unlike some of the other dairy alternatives, hemp milk is sustainable. The hemp plant's growth process is easy on the soil, keeping the soil’s nutritional density intact. Studies show that as the hemp plant grows, it is not susceptible to pests, meaning that pesticides are unnecessary for the growth and flourishing of the hemp plant.
The process of growing hemp makes it a much more sustainable choice than most dairy alternatives. Growing the hemp plant requires significantly less water than most other plants, and it is notorious for absorbing CO2 throughout the growth process. In fact, one hectare of hemp crop can absorb 22 tons of CO2.
Coconut milk is considered a healthy dairy alternative, thanks to its hefty vitamin and mineral content. It contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which most nutritionists agree to be beneficial for energy production in the body. Plus, coconut milk has a decent amount of protein and potassium, making it a smart switch from cow’s milk.
Growing, harvesting, and producing coconut milk is a fairly environmentally-friendly process. The water footprint for growing coconuts is “relatively low,” as is the impact on the land. The main issue is transportation because most coconuts are grown in warmer, more tropical climates. To transport them to the United States from India, The Philippines, and Indonesia (the leading producers of coconuts) results in a significant amount of fossil fuel consumption.
Coconut milk is a sustainable dairy alternative to grow and produce, but transportation logistics add additional carbon footprints
As far as environmental impact looks at a glance, soy and almond milk are pretty close to a tie. The difference lies in water usage since almonds require more water than soy during the growth process. Researchers report that it takes five liters of water to grow a single almond - Factor that into the amount it takes to create almond milk, and the water footprint isn’t great.
Soy milk has been the longest available dairy alternative. Its thick, creamy texture and slightly nutty flavor are incentives for ditching dairy, but the environmental benefits are equally as enticing. For one, scientist David Pimentel found that it takes 0.26 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of soy milk, where it takes 14 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of cow’s milk. So although a decent amount of water is needed to produce soy milk, it beats the amount needed for dairy by a landslide.
Oat milk is one of the more recent dairy alternatives to hit the markets here in the US. On a nutritional level, oat milk is jam-packed with beneficial nutrients, such as protein, iron, and calcium. The texture is the most similar to cow’s milk, with the ability to froth for lattes and cappuccinos.
No matter what dairy alternative you choose, it’s better than cow’s milk. Over the past decade, the demand for dairy products has gone up exponentially. From 2005 to 2015, there was a 30% increase in global milk production. Since then, the number has continued to climb, with negative environmental consequences.
To produce a single gallon of milk, 144 gallons of water are needed. Compared to the dairy alternatives discussed above, avoiding dairy products will have a positive impact on the environment, no matter how small you think your swap may be.
Dairy farms require a significant amount of water in order to run, making them far less sustainable than dairy alternatives
But just like with all other goods, make sure to check your labels before buying. There are a couple of brands of dairy alternatives that put hidden fillers like sugars, added flavors, binding agents, and oils in their milks. On the same note, also be sure to look for sustainable brands that are environmentally responsible, from farm to packaging.
Big or small, the swap from dairy to plant-based alternatives is going to do good for the environment and your body. Drink up!