How many of us feel like we can’t do anything without coffee? The older I get, the more convinced I am that I’ll always wake up tired, but that first sip of coffee reminds me how it feels to be young and alive…
Okay, so I’m only 27, but that’s literally thousands of lived days – many of which wouldn’t have been functional without a cuppa.
I only started enjoying coffee in my second year of uni, so I understand why it’s an acquired taste. But now, many years later, myself and my partner are self-proclaimed coffee snobs. We have a Sage bean-grinding machine at home, we subscribe to our favourite local roasteries, and even watch videos on how long it takes to pour the perfect shot of espresso…
That’s why, in order to find a more sustainable milk alternative, we’d have to find something pretty damn special.
So we tried the lot!
- Why switch to an alternative milk?
- Cons of switching
- Alt milk brands and their impacts
Why switch to an alternative milk?
According to Mike Berners-Lee’s book, How bad are bananas?, a litre of milk causes approximately 1272g CO2 equivalent, which quickly adds up when 15 billion litres of milk were produced in the UK in 2020/21. This footprint primarily comes from farming (up to 85% of the total footprint is wasted energy from cow food and methane production), as well as the transport, packaging, and refrigeration.
For comparison, where I could find the information on alt milk carbon footprints, they ranged from 310-580g CO2 equivalent per litre, which on a large production scale is a huge difference. According to the carbon equivalencies calculator, if we theoretically swapped out all the UK’s cow’s milk for the lowest carbon alt milks, we would prevent over 14 billion kilograms of annual CO2 emissions – the same as driving approximately thirty-six billion miles in an average car.
That’s the same as every driver in the UK driving 1,131 fewer miles each year.
That’s m a s s i v e.
Even if everyone in the UK just substituted one day’s worth of their milk intake, which is more realistic and absolutely achievable, this would still prevent over two billion kilograms of CO2 – or 5 billion miles driven in a car.
This is what we’ve decided to do. Because we use our coffee machine every day, on a typical week we buy 12 pints of milk for a household of two. Using Berners-Lee’s calculations, that’s roughly 450kg CO2 each year from milk alone, which we were starting to feel a bit guilty about. After experimenting with every type of milk under the sun for this feature, we found one that’s become a staple of our weekly shop. We’ve permanently swapped out two litres of cow’s milk for it, saving us at least 32kg CO2 equivalent per year.
Do keep reading even if you don’t have a similar coffee problem at home, though. If there’s ever a great time to try an alt milk, it’s when visiting your favourite café where they know what they’re doing with it. Starbucks even sell alt milks at the same price as normal milk now, so there’s no excuse for not trying one!
Unlike some other sustainability products, alternatives to cow’s milk have been around a lot longer (soya milk even dates back to the 14th century!), which means there’s a lot more choice. All of the alt milks mentioned in this blog are readily available in the big-name supermarkets, so they’re accessible for trying at home.
And you know what – some of them are actually really tasty!
What are the cons of switching to an alt milk?
The alternative milks market expanded in the last few years, so competition is starting to grow. That means that the better tasting ones aren’t yet a reasonably priced substitute for families (or coffee snobs) getting through large quantities of milk. Supermarket own brand options cost around £1 per litre, but the better quality ones sit closer to £1.80, nearly double the cost of cow’s milk, which soon adds up.
For reference, a pint of Tesco’s semi-skimmed cow’s milk costs £1.06 per litre, or 50p per litre in a six-pint container. Alternative milks don’t yet come in containers larger than a litre, and although some can be stored in cupboards, it makes storage a little more awkward. Like I said though, substituting just some of your milk for alternative milk is better for the environment – especially if everyone takes up the trend!
As bad as cow farming is for the environment, alternative milks aren’t perfect either. Each natural ingredient requires land, water, and energy, and how much of each varies depending on the crop. For example, rice is super intensive on the water front, which makes it a less sustainable option than something like oat milk. This article by Brightly nicely summarises water usage for each type of milk.
Of course, if you wanted to be a model eco-citizen, you could try researching the farmland where your chosen alt milk is from. Have they chopped down rainforest for it? Have they offset their farming emissions? As always, I recommend looking into the brands of the products you buy and see if they really care. I find you can easily get a sense from what their sustainability webpages say (or most importantly, don’t say!) about their processes and supply chains.
Alternative milks pretty much always use Tetrapak, which can’t be recycled with your kerbside collection. You can save all your cartons and take them down to the nearest recycling centre, but for some that might not be practical, and buying per litre means storing the empties away quickly becomes a new polyethylene-paper igloo.
It’s near-impossible in certain areas of the UK to recycle Tetrapak. I looked up where Nottingham’s nearest recycling centre is on Tetrapak’s recycling map, just to be told, “soz, we’re not there yet.”
Well then why are your products so widely available here? Our nearest recycling point is a half-hour drive away, but then you have to question whether the carbon cost of driving there and back outweighs the benefit of recycling the packaging. For this reason, ours end up in the bin, which feels pretty shitty.
Unfortunately, moo milk is superior in terms of nutrients and health benefits. It often has way more protein and calcium than alt milks, although it also contains more sugars.
Many alt milks are ‘fortified’, meaning that they have these nutrients added in, and in some cases offer similar nutrition to cow’s milk. Different alt milks offer different nutrients depending on what they’re fortified with, but are generally lower in calories.
Alt milks are a processed produce, which will always be ‘unhealthy’ to a certain degree. But how many of the foods and drinks we consume are processed already? I remember when the trashy national newspapers were putting out articles villainising a new food type every other month – and then singing their praises the next. Take it all with a pinch of salt (not literally – that’s unhealthy).
As long as you’re not chugging back carton after carton, you’ll be fine – which again works with my ideal world where everyone supplements their weekly milk order with an alt milk or two.
Alt milk brands and their impacts
Of course, carbon footprints are estimates, but they’re really helpful to see the difference in production between brands. Unfortunately, very few companies explicitly state the carbon footprints for their individual products, which is why the table below is quite bare.
I find that the smaller or more niche a company is, the more likely they are to share that information. I was disappointed to see that neither Alpro nor Califia disclosed theirs. However, many of these companies do claim to be carbon neutral, and we can expect that the production of these products should emit less CO2 equivalent than cows.
|Brand||Type||Cost per litre||Protein per 100ml||Sugars per 100ml||CO2E per litre||Company country|
|Tesco semi-skimmed||Cow’s milk||95p||3.6g||4.8g||1272g||UK|
|Alpro Barista Coconut||Coconut||£1.80||1.5g||3.3g||?||Belgium|
|Mighty M.LK original||Pea protein||£2||2.4g||2.0g||440g||UK|
|Mighty M.LK semi||Pea protein||£2.10||2g||1.7g||460g||UK|
|Wunda Milk||Pea protein||£1.90||2.2g||2.3g||580g||Switzerland|
Good to know:
- Jord – owned by Arla Foods (Lurpak, Anchor, etc), net worth $1.15B
- Alpro – owned by Danone (Actimel, Evian, Volvic, etc), net worth $43.94B
- Wunda – owned by Nestlé (basically every product ever – they’re the biggest food company in the world), $360.04B
- Oatly – invested in by Blackstone Group (who are known to have invested in companies with links to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest), a company owned by the Chinese state, the founder of Starbucks, and Oprah Winfrey (?)
Alt milk reviews
The below reviews are based on alternative milks used in homemade lattes and cappuccinos, so you’ll have a different experience trying them in instant tea or coffee. We alternate between beans from 200 Degrees and Cartwheel Coffee, both of which offer notes of fruit, caramel, chocolate and burnt sugar.
I’d like to say that’s as pretentious as this post will get, but it’s probably just the tip of the udder.
The below reviews are based on how well the milk frothed, how creamy the coffee tasted, and any aftertaste left by the milk. We tried multiple brands across the different types of milk, but didn’t take price or packaging into account as much, as they’re all in a similar ballpark.
As always, all opinions in this article are my own and unpaid for.
There is a choice of almond milk between sweetened and unsweetened and we weren’t sure which would be the one we wanted. In the end, it didn’t matter –
Neither were nice in coffee.
We tried Alpro’s almond milk. It left a very bitter aftertaste which didn’t complement the already bitter bite of coffee, and to be honest we couldn’t tell much difference between the levels of sweetness.
We’ve not tried a ‘barista’ version of almond milk yet, but other alternative milks we tried were creamy and frothed up without the ‘barista’ labelling.
The almond milk also wasn’t remotely creamy, so when I tried it in tea I added way more than I normally would, as the tea never reached that perfect shade of beige. But this meant the tea got cold pretty quick – another tick in the disappointments column.
In fact, I would say almond milk is more akin to water in consistency and creaminess. A weak, bitter water. Tears of the almond.
As you can see by the image I’ve used with this one, it’s bad enough that I’d rather take a picture of one in Tesco than have to drink another litre of it…
Hazelnut milk sounded wonderful – it’s one of my favourite flavours of coffee syrup, so let’s two birds one hazelnut this thing, right?
Wrong. Unfortunately, hazelnut milk was just like almond milk. It lacked creaminess, barely frothed, and made the coffee taste more bitter with its lame, watery consistency.
We’re so disappointed by hazelnut and almond milk that we can’t even bring ourselves to try cashew milk. I’m starting to think they just never should have bothered milking nuts.
We first bought Oatly based on the fact that they had a Barista version.
And this is what we were looking for.
Yeah there’s subtle hints of porridge on one’s palate after each sip, but it’s actually quite nice! And the more I drink of it, the less I notice.
We’ve since gone on to try all sorts of oat milk brands, including Alpro, Minor Figures, and Califia, and even fresh oat milk from the Modern Milkman delivery service. My partner swears Califia is the smoothest tasting one – which is good, as it’s also the most expensive (£2 for 1 litre). Minor Figures was a close second.
Oat milk has become a typical item in our weekly shop, and even more surprising is that my partner – the bigger of the two coffee fiends in this house, and a self-confessed ‘absolute milk guzzler’, has deemed oat milk coffee as ‘his favourite’, and that it’s like a treat whenever he has it. He now almost exclusively drinks oat milk coffees.
I might as well end the article here, right? What more do I need to say? Go supplement your milk intake with oat milk!
Here are the brands we’ve tried, from best to worst:
- Minor Figures
- Oatly Barista
- Jord oat and barley
- Supermarket own brands
It is worth noting, though, that even the ‘worst’ oat milk was better than almond milk in coffee.
I did also try oat milk in tea, and it works! It gives its unusual but not unpleasant aftertaste to that too.
My personal favourite, though, was oat milk hot chocolate. This works so well, and if the mild porridgy aftertaste in tea or coffee doesn’t do it for you, it’s better in hot chocolate as the chocolate taste cancels it out. We’ve also started buying Oatly’s chocolate milk and just drinking it neat instead of milkshakes. It’s very, very good.
Oatly believe that their standard oat milk’s carbon footprint is 0.31kg per litre. You can read more about how they calculated this total on their carbon footprint webpage (which I totally love and wish was a legal obligation).
If you’re the one in the family that eats all the Bounties at the bottom of the Celebrations tub, you’re in for a treat.
We thought after oat milk that no other alternatives would be good enough, but then along came coconut milk. Not to be confused with the coconut milk you put in Thai food, or the coconut water that is, quite frankly, vile soap-water, alternative milk coconut milk brings a frothiness and creaminess akin to oat milk, but with a fresh, coconutty aftertaste.
I think Alpro Barista coconut milk is the frothiest of the alt milks we tried, and is a very close second to oat milk on the creamiest. I think that the oat flavour in some ways contributes to the creamy taste, so perhaps that’s a trick of the brain.
If I were to be fussy, coconut milk is almost too frothy. If you like your coffees to look all pretty for Instagram, you can forget it. However, the thickness of the froth also changes the coffee drinking experience too. You have to snorkel through this layer of soufflé-like foam before you can even get to the drink.
However, when we tried the Linda McCartney barista coconut milk, it was like being back on the almond milk – it was super watery, barely frothed at all, and left an unpleasant aftertaste. So try not to be put off one type of alt milk until you’ve tried a couple of brands.
We don’t buy coconut milk as often as oat milk, but we occasionally like to spice up our milk routine by throwing a coconut milk in there. It makes a banging hot chocolate too – if you’re into Malibu hot chocolates, this one is for you. I’m not trying it in tea though – something about coconut in your typical English Breakfast doesn’t sit right.
I went into soya milk not expecting much – I had the feeling that all the alt milks that have been around for a while were a bit rubbish thanks to almond milk. But you know what? It’s not bad. It’s not oat or coconut level – it’s just whelming.
I was pleasantly surprised at both its consistency and how well it frothed up, but it was missing the creaminess of cow’s milk. It was far superior to the watery bitterness of a nut milk coffee, but there’s something not quite there for me. If given a soya milk coffee, I would drink it, but I wouldn’t choose it over the other alt milks in our line-up.
Soya milk has a reputation as bad as palm oil due to deforestation for plantation space. Aha! say the MAGAs of the world. The vegans are causing the rainforest destruction! But here’s the ironic thing – according to How bad are bananas, most soya is grown for cow feed.
So if we ate less beef and drank less cow’s milk, we would be freeing up more soya produce to fill that milk gap. Win win!
I read a comment on a Facebook environmental forum that hemp milk is one of the creamiest available, so we thought we’d give it a go.
We tried Good Hemp, as I think they have the most exciting packaging of all the alternative milks (plus they were the only hemp brand widely available).
I’d rate it better than the nut milks, but not playing in the big leagues like oat and coconut.
Pea protein milk
We loved Beyond Meat’s burgers when we tried them, so naturally when we saw pea protein milk appear in Tesco, we wondered if it might actually be good. If it was, we could basically just replace all cow farms with pea plants, right?
Well, Wunda Milk actually wasn’t bad. It has a good flavour and probably the least harsh aftertaste of all the alternative milks we tried. It’s nice and creamy like normal milk and frothed up well. There was only one real downside; unless you chug your coffee in one, the froth goes a bit weird. It solidified in places and left lumpy bits – not really what you want in your morning latte.
Wunda is supposedly carbon neutral and according to Food Navigator equates to 0.58kg carbon equivalent.
However, we didn’t realise this one is owned by Nestlé before we tried it as it’s very well-hidden on the packaging… of course I’m all for mainstream plant-based alternatives, but you just know they don’t care nearly as much as the dedicated brands.
Otherwise, Mighty M.LK do a yellow split pea milk too which we’ve yet to try, but they’re completely open about their carbon footprints with this very handy certification page.
So, while none of the alternative milks tasted exactly like cow’s milk, there are some that are more than passable in our hot drinks. Each milk had an aftertaste with varying levels of bearability, so as with most sustainable swaps, it comes down to personal preference.
Oat milk was the stand-out winner for us, with coconut milk a respectable second. Oat milk has become a must-buy in our food shops for coffee, hot chocolate, and chocolate milkshakes.
There are downsides to alt milks, as there are with many food and drink products, but issues around price and packaging I can see improving over the next few years as demand for alt milks increases.
Anyway, below is my top 3 for each category:
- Oat milk
- Coconut milk
- Pea protein milk
- Coconut milk
- Oat milk
- Soya milk
- Pea protein milk
- Oat milk
- Coconut milk
- Oat milk
- Coconut milk
- Pea protein milk
- Almond milk
- Hazelnut milk
- Hemp milk
I’d love to hear from readers whether they’ve given an alt milk a go after reading this feature. What are your favourite alternative milks? Do you agree with the lists above? Let me know in the comments below!