What is dairy-free plant milk made from?
Vegan plant milk can be made from a variety of plants including soya beans, peas, oats, rice, and various nuts and seeds. It can also be made from potatoes. We discuss the main ingredients used by plant based milk brands below.
The classic plant milk ingredient is soya, but soya is associated with deforestation in South America. However, it is worth remembering that most soya grown in the world is used to feed livestock, not people. For more on the impacts of soya see our online feature ‘Is soya sustainable’.
To minimise the risk that the soya you are drinking is associated with deforestation, it is good to look for a company that sources it from outside South America. See the table below for what we found online on all the soya milk brands, including supermarkets.
Supermarket statements on soya mostly relate to what is used in feed for their animal products, and they may specify separately – look on the packaging – the origin of soya used in soya milk. We listed M&S separately as it had clearly stated online that the soya in its soya milk was from the EU. In 2020, it also announced it had eliminated all soya from the feed of animals used for its dairy milk, replacing it with rapeseed oil and sugar beet.
Companies' statements on where their soya comes from:
|Soya milk brand
|Asda, Aldi, Co-op, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose
||They talk about increasing certification, or supporting European soya (Aldi), stating or implying they currently source from South America.
|Glebe Farm, Linda McCartney, Rude Health
||No info found
||No info found, but it is owned by Alpro (see below)
||France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada
|M&S Plant Kitchen
Pea & chickpea
Yellow split peas are another of the newest milk ingredients currently gaining a following in the UK. They have been praised for tasting a lot like dairy milk. Peas are nitrogen-fixing, so when included in crop rotation cycles, they can reduce the use of nitrogen fertiliser, and the release of nitrous oxide, which has a significant impact on global warming.
While the average carbon emissions of growing oats might be fairly similar to that of soya or almonds, if shopping in the UK, the oats in your oat milk were probably grown closer to home than many other popular plant milk ingredients.
Oats require less water to grow than almonds and, while they do require a fair bit of land, there is little risk that tropical rainforest has been razed to the ground to grow them.
Rice can have a higher greenhouse gas impact than other cereals due to the methane produced by flooded rice paddies. However, it isn’t really clear if it makes much difference to the carbon footprint of rice milk – some analyses find it somewhat bigger than the other alternatives to dairy, but others don’t. Either way, rice milk still comes out as far better for the climate than dairy milk. For more discussion of the ethical issues around rice see our shopping guide to rice.
Over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, which experienced severe drought for much of the last decade, with 2022 to date the driest year of the last 128 years. For this reason, almond milk may be one of the least ethical options compared to other plant milks. However, it’s worth keeping a sense of perspective.
Not only does it also take plenty of water to produce dairy milk (some analyses put it at similar, some more, and some less than almond milk), but the comparison is pertinent to California, which produces more dairy milk than almonds (in dollar terms) and uses more water to grow alfalfa to feed livestock than it does to grow almonds.
It’s also worth pointing out that almonds are used for all sorts of products (oil, flour, cakes and sweets, etc.) and are popular for cooking and snacking around the world.
Another issue is that Californian almond farmers often use a lot of pesticides, which can be harmful to the health of wildlife and people. It has been a particular cause of concern for bee welfare. The use of bees to pollinate California’s almond monocrops is also thought by some to be putting bees under a lot of stress.
But all of the almond milk brands in this guide, except Bruce, Glebe Farm and Linda McCartney, stated that they source almonds from the Mediterranean, either Italy or Spain.
While issues with Californian almonds get more attention because of its huge market share, pesticide use is also an issue in other countries, and with other ingredients. The easiest way to avoid high pesticide use is to choose an organic certified product. The following brands sell organic almond milk: Alpro, Bruce, Plenish, Provamel (Danone), ReRooted, Rude Health, and The Bridge.
Coconut is not associated with deforestation like palm oil or soya. However, coconuts are largely grown in places such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines, so it’s an ingredient that has to travel a long way to reach the UK market.
Coconuts are largely grown by smallholders, and tree crops (cocoa is another example) grown in the poorer parts of the world are often associated with poverty.
One reason is that they take years to establish, and after farmers have invested in them they’re pretty much stuck and have to just keep harvesting them, no matter what they’re getting for them. This tends to lead to low and volatile prices, and most coconut farmers are very poor.
Fairtrade, with its floor price and a price premium, was partly designed to help with this issue. However, there are no Fairtrade brands currently available since Lucy Bee coconut milk was discontinued.
Hemp is naturally pest and weed resistant, and it uses little water and nutrients. It is also good at fixing nutrients into the soil and works as a reasonable carbon sink as well. Large scale hemp cultivation can be difficult due to its association with its close relative, the cannabis plant. In the UK you need to obtain certain licenses to grow hemp as it is considered a controlled substance, despite it being the more well-behaved member of the family that will categorically not get anyone high.