Milk in comparison: Cow’s milk and its milk-alternatives

Mirror, mirror on the wall – which milk is the most sustainable of them all? Cow’s milk has been continuously under fire from all sides – is cow’s milk really healthy for humans? An increasing number of people are sensitive to lactose and, as a consequence, turn to milk-alternatives such as soy or almond milk. Are these milk-alternatives healthier? For the athletes among us, which cow’s milk-alternative has the highest protein content? And what about their sustainability? We have done some research for you.


“One cow moos, many cows make trouble”

Cow’s milk is often strongly criticized. Starting with lactose intolerance, which affects around 15% of the population in Germany, to CO2-emissions. Nevertheless, many hold on to the belief that cow’s milk is good for the bones. Thus, it should be an important component of our nutrition. Is this true though?

The poor CO2-balance of cow’s milk cannot be denied. Large amounts of cows are required to satisfy our demand for the cow’s milk. However, their nutrition and methane emissions are harmful for the world´s climate. Therefore, it is estimated that just one liter of cow’s milk produces an average of 2.4 kg of CO2. To put this figure into perspective – the combustion of one liter of gasoline also produces about 2.4 kilograms of CO2. In Germany, it is at least only 1.3 kg CO2 per liter of cow’s milk. However, this figure does not include emissions that are caused by the additional transport, storage, and processing of the milk.

Cow´s milk: Healthiness

In terms of healthiness, cow’s milk does not rank up high. Although cow’s milk does indeed contain many valuable nutrients such as protein and calcium which are good for the body and the bones, milk is also associated with osteoporosis and inflammation. In addition, cow’s milk has been associated with being carcinogenic, especially with regard to prostate cancer. Moreover, cow’s milk drinkers also have an increased risk of developing intestinal problems, acne, and other skin diseases. Critics say that cow’s milk is only suitable for mammalian-babies. In fact, the growth factors contained in the milk are intended for a calf to increase its weight as fast as possible, in order to grow up accordingly. This could be harmful for adult mammals.

If you think about it – humans are the only living creature that still ingests some form of baby milk even far into adulthood, despite the baby milk being for cows. So it should come as no surprise that on average 75% of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant. Therfore, many people are searching for a milk-alternative.

Soy milk

Milk-alternative: Soy milk

Soy milk is enjoying increasing popularity worldwide. The main sales markets are America and Europe.

However, the effects of soy milk on our environment can also be problematic – the cultivation of soybeans. Extensive areas of Brazilian rainforest, the main export country for soybeans, are being cleared. The EU alone imports around 35 million tons of soybeans annually, around half of which come from Brazil. However, the majority of this quantity is not used for this cow’s milk-alternative but for animal food. Today, there are many soy milk brands, such as Alpro. They deliberately advertise that the soy beans they use come from sustainable cultivation, oftentimes within Europe or Canada. Alpro also advertises that the soybeans processed by the company have not been genetically modified – another point of criticism that soy milk advocates often have to face. 

Soy milk: genetically modified

Although the cultivation of genetically modified soy is prohibited in Germany, it still does end up on German food plates and thus in the human bodies. This can happen in the form of cheese, milk or meat as regulations make it possible for genetically modified soy to be used for animal food. In this case, no labels on these products are required which highlight the genetically modified soy. The WWF estimates that more than 80% of all into Germany imported soy-products are genetically modified. It is currently still difficult to estimate the long-term effects that genetically modified soy will have on the human organism. Experts fear that genetically manipulated soy could, for example, trigger allergies. The modified genetic material of the soybean contains different proteins than normally the case with non-genetically manipulated soy.

Likewise, antibiotic resistance could also occur since antibiotic resistance genes are often integrated into genetically manipulated plants. The biggest problem here is that genetically manipulated plants are often approved for the market if they are classified as safe on the basis of animal experiments. These are accomplished, however, on one hand with mice and rats, whose organism does not fully translate to humans. On the other hand, these animal experiments are considered completed after a duration of approximately 90 days. It is therefore questionable what the long-term effects of genetically manipulated plants, in this case soy, on the human body might actually be. In principle, one could currently describe humanity as a large experimental laboratory.

Advantages of soy milk

In terms of the CO2 footprint, soy milk is actually much better than cow’s milk. Soy milk requires 25% less greenhouse-gases and almost 60% less land to cultivate. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg (IFEU) therefore gives an estimated emission value of 130 g CO2 per 100 g soya. Hence, the IFEU rates soy as good in terms of its emission-value balance. Soy milk also scores well in terms of its nutritional value: soy milk has a high protein content. Not as high as cow’s milk but higher than all other milk-alternatives. It protects the heart due to its low cholesterol content, and is now often sold enriched with calcium. Caution with regard to soy milk is only advisable if you have an intolerance to soy!

Almond milk

Milk-alternative: Almond milk

In terms of sustainability, almond milk is also struggling. To be completely ripe, a single almond needs about 4 liters of water. In addition, almonds from their main growing areas often have to be transported over long distances. The USA is widely supplied with almonds from California. Meanwhile, the European market is often supplied from Italy or the Iberian Peninsula. The bottom line is that although the production of one liter of almond milk produces only about one tenth of the greenhouse emissions compared to one liter of conventional cow’s milk, the production of one liter of almond milk requires 17 times as much water!

In addition, to meet the growing demand for almonds worldwide, more and more land must be made available for almond monocultures. This is particularly problematic in California where summer heat and drought periods cause major fires. These fires often rage for weeks and cannot be brought under control. Numerous residential areas as well as nature and animals have already fallen victim to these fires. 

Almond milk, however, can score particularly well in terms of its tolerance. Since almond milk is free of lactose, soy, milk protein, or even gluten, it is very well tolerated by most people – except of course for those who have an allergy to almonds.

Almond milk: problematics

Yet, the nutritional value of almond milk is somewhat more problematic. In its milk form, i.e. pressed almonds mixed with water, many of the valuable nutrients normally contained in almonds are no longer present. Thus, a 250 ml glass of almond milk contains just 1 – 2 g protein, 5 – 7 g fat, and only a few grams of fiber and minerals. In order to make almond milk still attractive, manufacturers usually add the necessary nutrients afterwards. The bottom line is that almond milk is good for our health. However, it should be warned that the varieties available in supermarkets are often sweetened. Those who like their almond milk to be as healthy as possible should go for the unsweetened version.

Milk jug

Milk-alternative: Oat milk

Oat milk is becoming increasingly popular in the USA and Europe – so much so that there were even supply bottlenecks in America during last year. This hype around oat milk is not without reason. It has less taste of its own than soy or almond milk. Therefore, oat milk is better suited for coffee. It can also be frothed up beautifully, has good nutritional values, and on top of that is particularly sustainable. Neverhteless, it should be addressed, however, that oat milk is not suitable for those who are gluten intolerant.

But why is oat milk so sustainable? Oat milk has the advantage that the oats used can often be grown locally, i.e. the emissions for their transport are comparatively low. Due to the local cultivation, there is no danger that additional areas of rainforest have to be cleared. In addition, oats, especially if they come from Europe, are often of organic quality. Further, they are scarcely sprayed with chemicals as oats are by nature a very resistant plant. Oats also require comparatively little water for its cultivation.

Milk-alternatives in a nutshell

So what kind of milk should you reach for at the supermarket? Cow´s milk or one of its milk-alternatives? Soy milk is a good alternative to conventional cow’s milk as long as you pay attention to the country of origin. It is especially recommended for athletes because of its higher protein content.

In conclusion, oat milk is the clear winner. It can score points in almost all areas. Compared to all other milk-alternatives, it requires less land area for its cultivation and less energy is needed for its production. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, soy and oat milk are considered almost equivalent – although the production of soy milk is likely to produce a little less CO2. Another plus point for oat milk is that most of the time it can be grown locally. 

Oat milk is also healthy thanks to its nutritional values and is well tolerated by most people without causing allergies.

In the end, the gold medal therefore goes without reservation to oat milk, closely followed by soy milk!