NEW YORK, June 2 ― In a bowl of cereal, in pancake batter, or as a finishing touch to creamy scrambled eggs... In 2021, global milk consumption was estimated at 908 billion litres, with extreme national variations for average consumption. A staple food in many countries, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation declared June 1 World Milk Day in 2001. While the day is designed to bring attention to the dairy sector, consumers' view of milk is undergoing a shift as many look to alternatives whether for personal or health-related reasons or environmental questions. Here's everything you need to know to choose the beverage that suits your values... and your taste!

What are we talking about when we talk about milk?

While within the EU the term milk is meant to be used only for “an animal product”, designating “exclusively the normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings,” other jurisdictions, including the US, allow the word “milk” to be used for a plant-based product although it advises companies to make its plant origin clear on labelling. In everyday language, it's common to hear consumers refer to almond milk or oat milk.

What's the most environmentally friendly milk?

If one combined the world's 15 biggest meat and dairy companies, it would form the tenth largest greenhouse gas emitting nation, according to a report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Changing Markets Foundation at the end of last year. At the other end of the scale, oat milk produces 80 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal-based dairy products, according to a study by the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands. Water requirements are lower than for many other alternatives. Only 18 per cent of the water required for rice milk and 13 per cent of that needed for almond milk production is used.

However, in 2018, the American lobby Environmental Working Group, indicated in a report that the glyphosate residues were found in numerous oat-based products, such as cereal and energy bars, while a study this year from Mamavation and Environmental Health News found that the broad-spectrum herbicide or some type of heavy metal was found in 2 out of 13 oat milk samples.

There are numerous types of plant-based beverages positioned as alternatives to cow's milk: soy, almond, rice, hazelnut, oat, pea etc, each with pros and cons, depending on whether you're looking at water or land use, or emissions as an article from 2020 in The Conversation points out. It notes that it's important to diversify our choices as consumers so that market demand for one type isn't “overexploited.” The authors also point out the packaging factor in the equation ― something to take into consideration and perhaps a reason to make your own alternative with your nuts or oats, water and a blender to lower the impact further, as Tasting Table outlines.

Can cow milk be cruelty-free?

Can milk really comply with the principles of animal welfare? Animal rights groups such as Peta suggest that producing cows' milk causes suffering. In recent years some farmers have started modifying their processes in response to such concerns. Privilege milk from small dairy farms, and look for labels like “animal welfare approved” or “humane certified.”

What milk is best from a nutritional perspective?

There are several nuances to this question too, mainly because the benefits are different depending on whether we're talking about cow's milk or goat's milk, or whether we're talking about plant-based beverages. Nutritionists emphasize that each variety has its own advantages.

From a nutritional point of view, specialists generally recommend semi-skimmed milk. Remember that it's the fat content that differs slightly between whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk. While this consumption should be limited due to saturated fatty acids, it should be noted that milk also contains omega 9, as in olive oil. Goat's milk contains the same lactose and fat content as cow's milk but it may be preferred for some consumers for digestibility, as a study from Michigan State University outlined.

While soy milk has been called into question along with other soy-based products as potential endocrine disruptors, soy has largely been found to have a “beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions,” as noted by Harvard's School of Public Health.

Another accusation levelled at plant-based milks is that they contain a high proportion of sugar. A recent US News & World Report investigation outlined the various nutritional profiles of several varieties of milk including calcium and vitamin contents as well as protein and fat, while cautioning that it's important for the consumer to read labels thoroughly to be aware of what has been added to these beverages ― particularly when it comes to added sugars but also fillers and preservatives.

Last but not least, remember these plant-based beverages are not a substitute for breast milk or formula. ― ETX Studio