What Kind of Milk Can I Drink Without Feeling Guilty?

CC BY 2.0. Joe Shlabotnik -- If only it were this simple...

Welcome to my personal dairy dilemma and the weird, convoluted thoughts that keep me up at night.

In recent months, I have found myself in a milk muddle, a cow quandary, a dairy dilemma of sorts. Wordplay aside, it’s a serious state of confusion in which I no longer know what to drink.

Ever since reading George Monbiot’s alarming article about the environmental damage caused by the dairy industry, cow’s milk has lost its appeal. Monbiot writes:

“Farm slurry pouring into the water, from a pipe that I traced back to a dairy farm, had wiped out almost all the life in the stretch of River Culm I explored. All that now grew on the riverbed were long, feathery growths of sewage fungus. An expert on freshwater pollution I consulted told me that the extent of these growths showed the poisoning of the river was ‘chronic and severe’.”

Monbiot, who lives in the United Kingdom, goes on to describe how the dairy industry is protected by the government’s Environmental Agency, which conducts “farcical investigations” and fails to prosecute blatant pollution; meanwhile, dairy farmers continue to dump obscene amounts of pollution into waterways all around the world, and dairy cows continue to suffer for longer periods of time even than cows raised for meat.

Fine, I thought. I can live without cow’s milk, but then I started to investigate the alternatives.

Soy milk was a logical solution, until I started reading about the possibility of it increasing risk of breast cancer, as soy proteins may actually stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells, which is rather unsettling. Other studies suggest that too much soy ingestion can lead to memory problems. Then there’s the knowledge that 90 percent of soy harvested in the United States is genetically modified, which, GMO debate aside, certainly means extensive pesticide use, which I do not like.

OK, no problem. I’ll just buy almond milk!

Unfortunately, almond milk has its fair share of problems, too. Most obvious is the enormous amount of water required to produce almonds. Despite suffering through a multi-year drought – the worst in 1,200 years, it’s been said – the state of California continues to produce 82 percent of the world’s almonds. It takes 1 gallon of water to produce one almond, which means that an obscene amount of precious water (approximately 10 percent of the state’s water) is allocated to almond production. My decision to start drinking almond milk couldn’t come at a worse time.

There are health concerns, too, about emulsifiers used to make almond milk feel smooth. Christine Lepisto wrote for TreeHugger about her own almond milk dilemma last year:

“Even if they are ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’ emulsifiers do what they do precisely because they have the chemical properties that help keep parts of the product suspended and evenly distributed when by nature they would rather separate. That same chemical property may act like a transport system for our intestinal bacteria, allowing them to become suspended and distributed into parts of our body where they should not be.”

I was also uncomfortable with the Tetra-Paks and waxed paper cartons in which both almond and soy milk come at my Canadian grocery store. Neither type of packaging can be recycled or reused in my town, which meant they go straight into the trash. Ugh.

Well, then. How about coconut milk?

Ah, coconut milk. I must admit I love it better than all the other milks combined, especially the full-fat kind with a thick layer on top, just begging to be scooped with a spoon; but, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. I began learning about coconut farming and production, and discovered that very few companies have good business practices; abuse and injustices are rampant in the industry, and it’s next to impossible to source fair-trade coconut milk.

To make matters worse, I came across the Environmental Working Group’s 2015 report on bisphenol-A in canned foods, and both brands of coconut milk I was able to source locally, Thai Kitchen and A Taste of Thai, ranked in the ‘Worst Players’ category for using cans lined with BPA. While it might not be something I’d worry about on rare occasions, I wasn’t comfortable with making it a regular dietary staple.

So, now what?

I really don’t know. I’ve shifted my focus toward reducing my uses for dairy and its various substitutes, while drinking a mix of all the above. I guess I’ll just have to wait for cockroach milk, described by fellow TreeHugger writer Derek as “the nightmare superfood of our dystopian future,” to hit the supermarket shelves – because, surely, there’s nothing I could possibly find wrong with that, right?