Should we drink plant-based dairy alternatives for a better health & environment?

Soy-based dairy alternatives are already available for a long time for consumer that don’t want, or can’t, consume regular dairy products. Recently, interest in other plant-based dairy alternatives is growing. In this blog, I will explain the health and environmental impact of changing from dairy to such plant-based alternatives.

In an earlier blog, I explained the role of dairy products in nutrient intake in our diet. Some nutrients (especially calcium and vitamins B2 and B12) are mainly obtained from dairy in our Western diet. Besides, dairy is also an important source of high quality protein in our diet. Only soy drink enriched with minerals and vitamins comes close to regular dairy in nutritional quality. Most other plant-based dairy alternatives, like almond, pea, coconut, oat and others, are not even close in composition to dairy. Most of the products are very low in protein (5 to 10-fold lower than regular dairy products) and are usually not enriched in vitamins and minerals. This makes such drinks completely unsuitable as dairy replacers, as they are not able to play a similar nutritional role in our diet.

An important reason for consumers to switch from dairy to plant-based alternatives is the environment. It is true to dairy production by cows is causing environmental pollution, especially through methane emission by dairy cows. Per liter of product, bovine milk will also have a larger environmental impact than plant-based alternatives. However, this should be seen in relation to its role in providing nutrients. As dairy provides many nutrients in our diet, the environmental impact per unit nutrient paints a different story. Here again, an enriched soy drink will turn out best, closely followed by regular dairy. But most other plant-based alternatives, due their much lower nutrient levels, will actually pollute more than regular dairy per unit nutrient.

In conclusion, most plant-based dairy alternatives are neither healthier nor environmentally more friendly than bovine milk, with the exception of enriched products, especially those based on soy protein.

Kasper Hettinga, February 2018

Author: Kasper Hettinga

Associate professor Dairy Science & Technology

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