Finding alternatives to cow’s milk is a perpetual hot topic in the coffee world, with several drivers behind moving away from dairy products, and many are wondering which alternative is the best. There’s no easy answer to this question, so let’s dive into the milky details.
Proponents of alternative milk point to several different reasons to move away from cow’s milk, and animal-based dairy products. These motivations are diverse and everyone subscribes to their own subset. Broadly they can be categorised into ethics, the environment, and taste.
More and more people are adopting a vegan or plant-based diet out of ethical concerns with the mass consumption of animal products. The production of meat, eggs, dairy and other foodstuffs from animals has become an enormous industrial operation that prioritises profitable production of as much product as possible, setting aside the welfare of the animals being bred and raised for human consumption. Eating meat is of course the most obvious of these, but products produced by animals like dairy – milk, butter, cheese, cream, and so on – place as heavy a burden on the producing animals as those reared for slaughter. Those who follow a plant-based diet forgo consuming foodstuffs produced by animals, for animals.
Climate change is the biggest challenge that humanity faces today, and every facet of our lives needs to be reconsidered and evaluated if we are to decarbonise our lives to an extent that will reduce global heating to a manageable level.
While we often think of electricity production or transport as major sources of emissions, agriculture accounted for just under 16% of global emissions in CO2-equivalents in 2018. Much of this comes from the mass farming of livestock, which is a particularly methane-intensive industry. Reducing our consumption of dairy products in exchange for plant-based alternatives with a lower methane-footprint would therefore be a substantial contribution to bringing our overall emissions down to a sustainable level.
Grains, nuts, and other crops have a lower emissions profile than traditional dairy, but they are by no means inherently better for milk production than cows. Almonds, for example, require huge amounts of water to be produced, making almond milk a less sustainable choice. Some alternative milks have also tried other means of reducing their carbon footprint, such as shipping in a powdered form and letting the end user add water – most alternative milks are over 90% water anyway, which needn’t be shipped around the world in tetra-packs.
There are an overwhelming number of different milk varieties available these days, and each has different strengths and weaknesses. Oat, soy, coconut, almond, even pea or macadamia are all out there.
There are two avenues that alternative milk drinkers take when it comes to the flavour profile of their coffee. Either they lean into the flavour of the alternative milk, choosing something that complements coffee nicely. This is generally the case with stronger-tasting choices like almond or coconut. These alternative milks can require some adjustment when coming from cow’s milk, and they can become divisive: some people love the combination, while others can’t even understand why someone might want to drink their coffee like that.
The other option is to try and develop a more neutral flavour profile closer to that of regular cow’s milk. Some alternative milk manufacturers have attempted this by creating blends or mixes of different ingredients, while others have embraced the more neutral tasting bases like oats or soy beans. Either way, these styles try to be more accessible by mimicking the classic taste of milk to make the swap easier for consumers.
Not all alternative milks are created equally
With all these factors to consider, many of which contradict each other, it’s not easy to arrive at a definitive “best” alternative to milk. Ultimately, it becomes a question of priorities, choosing the alternative that best aligns with your taste and ethical views.
For us, we wanted a milk alternative that is at once accessible, tasty, and sustainable. Oat milk is by far the most popular choice for coffee drinkers in Europe, and the production of oats has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all the bases used in producing alternative milks. This meant that we could confidently simplify our menu to just the one milk alternative, offering something that most of our plant-based coffee drinkers would be happy with. It’s neutral flavour and low carbon footprint make it an easy choice.
There are, however, many different choices in the oat milk world. Oatly continues to be our favourite choice, as it performs best with coffee. It foams just like cow’s milk, creating silky smooth microfoam with a fantastically rich texture. It allows us to pour great latte art, taking the presentation to the next level. It also withstands heat better than most other oat milks, avoiding that unpleasant cooked-oats flavour that some oat milks have.
We’ve been using Oatly for many years now, and knowingly continue to serve it despite the valid criticism it has attracted. Oatly is the biggest and most recognisable brand of oat milk in Europe, if not worldwide, and operating at this scale has its advantages and drawbacks. Specifically, Oatly has been accused of greenwashing since receiving investment from the controversial investment firm Blackstone, who have unsustainable and unethical businesses in their portfolio.
This rightly attracts criticism, as Oatly drinkers worry that their morning coffee might be supporting deforestation in the Amazonian rainforests or problematic political parties. In their defence, Oatly argue that to affect real change in the food and beverage industry, they need to work with big institutional companies to reach as big a market as possible, even if it means selling their product to supermarkets that support the dairy industry or receiving investments from firms like Blackstone.
At the end of the day, no milk alternative will be perfect. For our values and priorities, Oatly still provides the best balance of ethics, sustainability, taste and accessibility. But we’ve always got our radar on for new alternatives, constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, and should a better alternative milk come along that better matches our priorities and values, we’ll be the first aboard the bandwagon.