Vegan and non dairy milk

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 36 vegan milk brands.

We look into the sustanability of non-dairy plant milks, including almond, coconut, hemp, rice and soya; nutrition, packaging and who produces them. With Best Buy recommendations. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying non dairy milk:

  • Plant milk! – in all cases, plant based milk is pretty solidly better for the environment than dairy milk on all terms, including climate, land, water and biodiversity.

  • If it is coconut, is it Fairtrade? A lot of coconut farmers are very poor and suffer from low and volatile prices. Fairtrade can help.

  • If it is almond, is it organic? Almond growers use a lot of pesticides with a cloud hanging over their effect on bees and human health.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying plant milks:

  • Plant milk in plastic bottles – plastic bottles have a larger carbon footprint than cartons and often end up in landfill.

  • Is it from a non-vegan company? Several of the companies behind well-known ethical milk brands are also heavily involved in the dairy industry. Look for vegan companies to avoid funding factory farming and all the associated animal rights issues. 

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

cartoon: plant milk milking plants ethical consumer vegan hows it going are you getting anything yet?

Almost 25% of the UK population now drinks plant based milks, and there is now a huge range of different plants queuing up at the milking station.

There are three main types:

  • The beans: soya, pea, chickpea.
  • The cereals: rice, oat, millet, barley, buckwheat, spelt, quinoa, hemp.
  • The nuts and seeds: almond, coconut, cashew, hazelnut, Brazil nut, tiger nut, walnut, sesame.

This guide looks at the most widely available brands, and the ethical issues to watch out for with each milk.

 

Who sells what

Almond Aldi (Acti leaf), Alpro, Asda, Blue Diamond, Dream, EcoMil, Isola Bio, Lidl, Morrisons, Provamel, Rude Health, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, The Bridge
Barley Isolo Bio
Brazil nut The Bridge
Buckwheat Isola Bio, The Bridge
Cashew Alpro, Isola Bio, EcoMil, Provamel, Rude Health
Chickpea The Bridge
Coconut Alpro, Dream, EcoMil, Isola Bio, Koko, Lucy Bee, Marks and Spencer, Provamel, Rude Health, The Bridge, Vita Coco
Hazelnut Alpro, Isola Bio, EcoMil, Rude Health
Hemp EcoMil, Good Hemp
Millet Isola Bio
Oat Alpro, Asda, Dream, EcoMil, Isola Bio, Marks and Spencer, Oatly, Provamel, Rude Health, The Bridge
Pea Sproud
Quinoa EcoMil, The Bridge
Rice Alpro, Dream, EcoMil, Isola Bio, Provamel, Rude Health, The Bridge
Soya Alpro, Aldi (Acti leaf), Asda, Co-op, Granovita, Holland & Barrett, Isola Bio, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Plamil, Provamel, Rude Health, Sainsbury’s, Sojade, Sojasun, Soya Soleil, Tesco, The Bridge, Waitrose
Spelt EcoMil, Isola Bio, The Bridge
Tigernut EcoMil, Rude Health
Own mix of rice, cashew and coconut Rebel Kitchen
Powders: chestnut, sesame, soya, walnut EcoMil

 

Environmental and social impacts of plant milks

From some of the headlines, you’d think that vegans are forging a path to deforestation and sucking rivers dry in their efforts to find an alternative to dairy milk, but what we've found just doesn't bear this out.

 

Soya milk

It is worth reiterating that most soya is fed to animals and not consumed directly by people.

However, given that soya is associated with deforestation in South America, consumers may want to choose a brand that sources from elsewhere. For more on the impacts of soya see our feature ‘Is soya sustainable’.

Companies' statements on where their soya comes from:

Sources soya from outside South America  
The Bridge, Isola Bio Soya comes from Italy
Sojade, Sojasun Soya comes from France
Plamil "Our soya milk used Organic soya grown in the EU"
Provamel "Our organic, non-GMO soya beans come from Europe, mainly from France, Italy and Austria"
Alpro "We source our beans directly from farms whjere soya beans have been grown for many years, mainly France and subject to usual crop rotations. None of these farms are on land that has been reclaimed or deforested. In the past where we did not source our beans from Brazil, they were also not from our rainforest or deforested areas"
No info  
Soya Soleil No info found, but it is owned by Alpro
Rude Health Descrtibes its soya as "sustainably sourced" but no further information could be found.
EcoMil, Granovita, Holland & Barrett, Co-op, Aldi, Lidl, M&S

No info found.

Most of the supermarkets source soya from South America.

 

Rice milk

Rice has a higher greenhouse gas impact than other cereals due to the methane produced by the 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 milk, but some don’t. Either way, it still comes out as better for the climate than dairy milk. (See our feature on the climate impacts of plants and dairy).

For more discussion of the ethical issues around rice, see our guide to rice.
 

Coconut milk

Coconut is largely grown by smallholders, with the biggest international producers being Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Coconut is not associated with deforestation like palm oil or soya.

However, 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 you’ve invested in them you’re pretty much stuck and have to just keep harvesting them, no matter what you’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. Lucy Bee sells Fairtrade coconut milk.
 

image: soya milk in glass
Most soya is fed to animals and not consumed directly by people.

Oat, pea & chickpea milk

Pea is one of the newest ethical milk currently gaining a following in the UK. It has been praised for tasting a lot like dairy milk. It is made from yellow split peas.

Oats, peas and chickpeas are all grown in cool climates. Their sustainability profile is pretty good. Peas and chickpeas are nitrogen-fixing, and so they have a particularly excellent sustainability profile.

The herbicide glyphosate is sometimes sprayed on oats, and the Guardian recently reported on a study by the US-based Environmental Working Group that found glyphosate in most oat-based foods, including organic ones.

The situation in Europe is different from the US, but traces of glyphosate have indeed been found in many foods here, including oats, soya beans, peas, buckwheat and wheat. Oatly guarantees that its oat milk is glyphosate free.

Hemp

Hemp gets a pretty universally good sustainability write-up. It is naturally pest and weed resistant, and it uses little water and nutrients. It has struggled legally due to its brother the cannabis plant, and the US only legalised growing it in 2018.

 

Almond

Almond milk has been subject to a deluge of negative media articles over the past few years, a lot of them focusing on water use. Over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, which has been in a severe drought for much of the last decade.

However, while almond trees are certainly thirsty, it’s worth keeping this in proportion. 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 less of its water to grow almonds than it uses to grow alfalfa for livestock feed.

Another issue that afflicts almonds is that Californian almond farmers often use a lot of pesticides, including ones that have clouds hanging over their effects on bees and human health.

Luckily, all of the almond milk companies sell organic almond milk apart from Blue Diamond, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. We discuss organic food in general here.

The use of bees to pollinate California’s almond monocrops is also thought by some to be putting bees under a lot of stress. Many companies specify that they get their almonds from Europe, not California, including Alpro, Provamel, The Bridge, EcoMil and Isola Bio.

Californian almond growing is undeniably problematic in various ways. However, it is hard not to find it slightly weird that so many of the articles on this have headlines aimed specifically at the milk alone: “The deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession”; “Almond milk: quite good for you – very bad for the planet”; “Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters”. Almonds are also used in lots of other foods (it wasn’t possible to find figures for the proportions).

 

Palm oil and plant milks

The plant based milks themselves do not contain palm oil. However, the companies that make them sometimes use palm oil in other things.

Of the companies that get a best palm oil rating, the following are palm oil free:

Lucy Bee, Good Hemp (Braham & Murray), Rebel Kitchen (Craze Foods), The Bridge, EcoMil (Nutriops), Sproud (WMake), Rude Health, Blue Diamond, Vita Coco, Sojade and Sojasun.

Those who get a best rating but are not palm oil free are:

  • Plamil (all palm oil is “sourced from a non-Asian organic and sustainable RSPO supply chain that has been independently audited”).
  • Isola Bio/Wessanen (all palm oil is RSPO certified, and most comes from Latin America where it is not associated with deforestation).
  • M&S (all palm oil is certified, most by the more stringent types of certification, and the company is involved in positive initiatives).
  • Alpro/Soya Soleil/Provamel/Danone (nearly all of the company’s palm oil is certified, it is involved in positive initiatives and provides details of all of its suppliers) 

 

The most sustainable vegan milk?

It isn’t very easy to recommend an alternative milk as the best in sustainability terms.

The best thing is to get the most ethical version of each one and remember that they are all substantially better for the environment than dairy milk.

Their climate and land impacts are much smaller (see our feature on the climate impacts of plant vs dairy for details), their water use is less, their impact on biodiversity is less.

 

The Vegan Issue

Vegan companies

The following companies are fully vegan:

Lucy Bee, Plamil, Good Hemp (Braham & Murray), Rebel Kitchen (Craze Foods), The Bridge, EcoMil (Nutriops), Oatly (Havre Global), Sproud (WMake), Blue Diamond, Vita Coco (All Market Inc) and Koko (First Grade International).
 

Non-vegan companies

Besides the supermarkets, the following companies are not vegan:

  • Sojade and Sojasun are owned by Triballat Noyal which also specialises in French cheese.
  • Soya Soleil, Alpro, Provamel are all owned by Group Danone, which also sells both dairy and meat products.
  • Dream is owned by Hain Celestial which also owns Linda McCartney, Sun Pat and Tilda rice. It sells a number of meat products, such as Ethnic Gourmet curry.
  • Rude Health makes porridge and snack biscuits as well as plant milk, a few of which contain dairy products.
  • Although most of its products are vegan, the company has created controversy by writing blog posts which are very critical of veganism.
  • Wessanen, which makes Isola Bio, makes 96% of its revenue from vegetarian products, but not 100%.
  • Granovita’s parent Hugli also owns Natur Compagnie which sells meat and dairy products.

 

Nutrition

Mammal milk is intended as the sole food source for young mammals and is therefore uniquely nutritious. As adults we also eat a lot of other things, so we have no real need for the thing we put in our coffee to be some super-charged nutrient fiesta.

However, while you may not think of your cuppa as an important protein source, there are academics pointing out that milk does supply protein, and if you don’t get it from there, you will need to get it from somewhere else.

The amount of protein in plant milks varies by brand, but this table has indicative figures:

Grams of protein per 100ml  
Cow 3.5
Soya 3-3.15
Pea, chickpea 2-3
Almond, cashew, hazel, brazil nut, spelt, buckwheat, millet, barley, quinoa, hemp, tiger nut 0.5-1
Oat 0.2
Rice, coconut 0.1

 

Packaging

The vast majority of plant milks are sold in cartons, although there are a few brands that use plastic bottles. Good Hemp, for example, sells in both.

Most beverage cartons are made by the Swedish company Tetra Pak, and the company name has become synonymous with the product. But there are actually some other companies that make them, such as Elopak and SIG Combibloc.

The cartons are about 75% card, but this is layered with plastic (polyethylene) and, in the ones that are designed to preserve liquids outside of the fridge, a thin layer of aluminium.

The environmental impact of the packaging In terms of carbon, the carton is a small proportion of your plant milk’s footprint.

A litre Tetra Pak carton has a carbon footprint of around 40 grams, which is about 3-6% of the footprint of the contents. And it is around three or four times less than plastic bottles, which take much more energy to make.

However, obviously, climate change is not the only issue, resources and pollution issues also matter.

Beverage cartons are recyclable, but not back into cartons. The card can be recycled into paper, and the plastic/ aluminium layer can be turned into building materials like roof sheets.

Globally, only about 26% of them are recycled (figures are not available for the UK). UK carton recycling facilities have been very poor but have been getting better – the first UK dedicated facility, which is near Halifax, opened in 2013. They are now collected at the kerbside in most of the UK.

Plastic bottle recycling is more embedded, and about 57% of them are recycled in the UK. You can theoretically recycle them back into plastic bottles, but not infinitely – plastic degrades each time you melt it.

And they aren’t sturdy enough to withstand the sterilisation that would be required for them to be reused commercially without melting.

Most recycled bottles are turned into polyester fibre – used for clothing and furnishings. Obviously, bottles contain much more plastic. And while you can save a lot of energy by recycling plastic bottles, in the best-case scenario in terms of the amount of recycling likely to happen, their carbon footprint only attains levels similar to the worst-case scenario for cartons.

Overall, it seems pretty clear that cartons are the better option. However, if you make your own plant based milk you can avoid the whole issue of Tetra Paks and plastic bottles. Store your homemade milks in a reusable glass bottle.

Making your own oat milk

  1. Soak one cup of oats in water for at least 15 mins or overnight.
  2. Drain water.
  3. Blend oats in blender with 3 cups water, a pinch of salt and a little vanilla essence.
  4. If you want a sweetened version, add a couple of dates.
  5. Strain through a sieve (a normal sieve used for baking is fine).
  6. The remaining oats can be used in pancakes, porridge, smoothies etc.
  7. Keep the finished oat milk in the fridge in a glass milk bottle or screw top jar.

A coffee curdling problem?

Plant milks may curdle in coffee because it is acidic, which makes the protein molecules clump together. Dairy milk is more tolerant as it contains different proteins, which gives it a higher ‘curdle point’.

Tofu is curdled soya milk – you can basically end up with a coffee con tofu.

There isn’t a single solution because the likelihood of coagulation is affected by an annoyingly large number of things: the type of coffee (some are more acidic than others), how strong you make it, the type of plant milk, the additives in it, and the temperature.

Some brands add acidity regulators like potassium phosphates (dipotassium phosphate or monopotassium phosphate), stabilisers or emulsifiers to prevent the curdling.

Calcium, often added to replace the calcium in dairy milk, may also reduce it. Several brands have specific ‘Barista’ versions.

Other suggestions on the Internet include putting a tiny pinch of bicarbonate of soda into the coffee to reduce the acidity or adding the coffee to the plant milk rather than the other way around to help the milk adapt more gradually.

Company behind the brand

Danone is the company behind Alpro, Soya Soleil and Provamel. Provamel focuses on organic foods, Soya Soleil on just soya products.

Group Danone is a French multinational which bats on both sides of the animal/plant milk fence. Its other brands include Activia, Actimel, Shape, Cow and Gate, Evian, and Volvic. However, the company did do slightly better in the most recent ‘Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare’ report, having moved up to tier 2 (“Integral to business strategy”) out of 6.

Danone has also been accused of engaging in unethical marketing of infant formula in China, Indonesia, Turkey, and India. Baby Milk Action is thus running a DanoNO campaign aimed at the company.

It also accuses of Danone of dishonest underhand practices using a website called www.first1000days.ie. The website, which promotes breastfeeding, is run secretly by Danone. Readers are asked to sign up to receive emails, and Baby Milk Action claims that the company then uses their data to target them with adverts for formula.
 

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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