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With sustainable and plant-based diets becoming more normalised, attention has been given to food waste and how to reduce its impact on the environment; the handling of food and its associated greenhouse gas emissions are not far behind those of the energy and transportation industries. 

Food Waste Statistics

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd-largest contributor of carbon emissions, after the US and China. In terms of area, food waste would be as big as India and Canada combined. These figures are staggering considering that 11% of the global population is undernourished. 

The UN estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, a third of the world’s total production. According to the IPCC, the loss and waste of food was responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2016. Food waste also leads to a waste of the resources (water, energy, labour, capital and land) used to grow, transport and package the food. The FAO estimates that food loss and waste costs developed nations USD $680 billion and developing nations $310 billion annually. 

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Earth.org food waste by region
A graph showing the waste per person per year in kgs by region (Source: FAO)

While developed and developing countries waste similar quantities of food (650 million tonnes per year), in developing countries, 40% of the losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries, 40% of the losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. Solutions depend on the stage these losses occur at; for example, developed countries need to focus on better retail practices and changing consumer behaviour, while developing countries need to focus on improving storage and distribution infrastructure as well as providing financial and technical support for better harvesting techniques. 

Food Waste Solutions

A number of innovative solutions already exist for countries looking to tackle food waste. In a joint collaboration with the company Too Good To Go, Unilever, Arla Foods and Carlsberg have added a new packaging label, ‘often good after’ directly after the ‘best-before date’ on certain foods to inform consumers about expiry dates versus best-before dates. The latter is meant to be an indicative measure requiring consumers to judge whether food is expired based on sight and smell. This new practice is being launched in the Nordics and will expand to other markets provided legislation allows it.

Technology in Papua New Guinea is being used to help local farmers’ livestock meet internationally-recognised standards. A digital tracking system helps verify important information about pigs like pedigree and what food and medicines they have been fed, giving importers and consumers greater purchasing confidence and reducing the risk of food being rejected and disposed of. This digital system was designed by the FAO and the International Telecommunications Unit (ITU); the broadband network is being improved locally so that farmers can update records easily on their subsidised phones.

Insignia Technologies has colour-changing tags that can be applied to products at the point of manufacture. The time-temperature indicators change the colour of the label according to the shelf life of the product, allowing restaurants to prioritise products that are about to get spoilt, thus reducing waste. 

UK academics are developing paper-based, smartphone-linked spoilage sensors for meat and fish packaging. They cost less than £0.02 each and are non-toxic and biodegradable, helping to detect spoilage and reduce food waste for supermarkets and consumers.

Global food waste initiative Winnow has developed software that tracks food being thrown away in kitchens. By using this software, businesses can record what’s being thrown away, assess the cost of the discarded food and get a detailed breakdown of each day’s waste to better manage their menus and reduce waste. 

Government interventions to reduce food loss and waste could include providing incentives or financial aid to smaller farmers and producers so that they can adopt more efficient techniques and practices. Organisations like the World Food Program help small farmers connect to people in need and also provide the necessary technologies for more efficient storage and distribution to prevent spoilage.

Local governments can support the set up of organisations like the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the UK that develops actions and milestones to help UK retailers and brands halve food waste by 2030. It provides guidance on labelling, packaging and storage and conducts and publishes surveys of businesses on their progress.

Updating legislation around labelling requirements so that the best-before and use-by dates are clearer to consumers, as well as ensuring solutions like the ‘often good after’ concept is brought in to markets, will also help.

Governments should also educate consumers on reducing food waste. The highest carbon footprint of wastage occurs at the consumption phase (37% of total), whereas consumption accounts for 22% of total food wastage; one kilogram of food that is wasted further along the supply chain will have a higher carbon intensity than at earlier stages.

Earth.org contribution of commodities to carbon footprint
A graph showing the contribution of commodities to carbon footprint and food waste (Source: FAO).

Cereals, vegetables and meats have intense carbon footprints and contribute heavily to food waste. It is vital to, in the case of meat, minimise consumption, while for cereals and vegetables, optimise how they are managed and consumed to reduce wastage.   

Project Drawdown, a global research organisation that identifies, reviews and analyses the most viable solutions to the climate crisis, ranked solutions to global warming and found that cutting down on food waste could have a similar impact on reducing emissions over the next three decades as onshore wind turbines. If small and large businesses, governments and consumers work together, about 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases can be prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

Other things that consumers can do to reduce their food waste is to simply buy less food- plan your meals to ensure that you only buy what you need. Be sure to store food correctly; some tips include keeping the refrigerator below 5°C, storing cooked foods on shelves above raw foods and storing food in sealed containers. Finally, freeze your leftovers so that they last a bit longer.

More and more people are making the shift to plant-based diets, including plant-based milk. However, it can be difficult to discern what the best option is with the variety of milks. What are the health benefits and environmental impact of oat, soy, almond, coconut and other plant-based milks?  

Research has emphasised the importance of food development tailored to the changing demands of consumers. As consumers have shown to be more invested in nutritionally beneficial products, beverages that address lifestyle needs– such as to boost energy, fight ageing, overcome fatigue and stress, target diseases and help deal with intolerances- are becoming increasingly popular.

Plant-based Milk VS Cow Milk

One major development is milk alternatives to help those with cow milk allergies, lactose intolerance and prevalence of hypercholesterolemia- among other dietary requirements.

Plant sources such as cereals and legumes contain essential health-promoting components including dietary fibres, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants and have thus appeared in non-dairy, healthy and affordable plant-based milk alternatives.

In addition to the health benefits plant-based milks offer, they are also better for the environment in terms of production. 

Environmental Impact

Although there is a limited number of studies that have investigated the environmental impact of plant-based milk alternatives, the data available indicates that, for example, the climate impact per unit weight of product from the production of plant-based milk is substantially lower than for cow’s milk due to the avoided emissions from animals, manure and feed production. This also helps reduce soil  acidification, eutrophication and water stress. 

Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted “no product has zero effect on the environment, but if you shift from dairy to plant milk, even to some extent you’re doing the environment a favour.”

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Oat Milk

Health Benefits

Oat milk’s popularity is relatively recent, and has been mainly attributed to its presence of dietary fibres, phytochemicals and high nutrient content. 

Oats have been shown to have hypocholesterolemic and anticancerous properties and contain dietary fibres such as beta-glucan, functional protein, lipid and starch components as well as phytochemicals. Oats are also a good source of protein with good amino acid balance. Beta-glucan, the functionally active component, is a soluble fibre that has the ability to delay gastric emptying time which can lead to reduced blood glucose levels. They are also a good source of antioxidants and polyphenols. 

However, a study found that oat milk lacks calcium which is essential for growth and development- especially when toddlers and adolescents are concerned. The researchers outlined that it needs to therefore be fortified before its consumption as a milk alternative. 

Environmental Impact 

Oat milk has the lowest environmental impact in comparison to the other major plant-based milk alternatives available on the market (e.g. soy and almond), due to its low water requirement.

According to a life cycle assessment (LCA) study published by the Swedish oat milk brand Oatly, the production of oat milk results in 80% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 60% less energy and 80% less land usage in comparison to cow’s milk. 

Moreover, oats can grow during the winter, which means they are often used as a cover crop: they are grown when farmland would otherwise lie fallow. Cover cropping can reduce fertiliser and pesticide requirements of other crops, diversify plants to feed wildlife and insects, boost soil fertility and extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by maintaining live vegetation for the majority of the year. 

Commercially available oat milk products include Oatly (Sweden), Alpro (UK), Vitasoy (Hong Kong) and Pacific (US). 

Soy Milk 

Health Benefits

The first use of soy milk was reported approximately 2 000 years ago in China. Soy milk was the first plant-based milk product to replace cow’s milk where the supply had adequate nutrition. It also proved popular amongst those allergic to milk proteins and intolerant to lactose.

Soy milk is a good source of essential monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids which are beneficial for cardiovascular health.

The active component of soybeans, isoflavones, have protective properties against cancer, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Soy foods are also rich in phytochemicals like phytosterols, which can reduce cholesterol.

Soy milk is free of lactose and cholesterol and is easily digestible. 

Environmental Impact

According to a study published by Cornell University, 0.26 calories of fossil fuel is required to make 1 calorie of soy milk- it takes 14 calories of fossil fuels to make the same amount of cow’s milk. 

Moreover, one litre of soy milk requires about 297 litres of water to produce, which is a third of the water required to produce one litre of cow’s milk. 

As soybeans are legumes, they are able to fix nitrogen in the soil (nitrogen fixation), which reduces the need for nitrogen fertilisers. A percentage of nitrogen fertilisers is converted to nitrous oxide, which is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. 

Commercially available brands include Silk (US), Vitasoy (Hong Kong), Bonsoy (Australia) and Happy Happy Soy Boy (Japan). 

Almond Milk 

Health Benefits 

In comparison to other plant-based milks, almond milk is a natural source of vitamins, especially vitamin E which cannot be synthesised by the body organically and needs to be obtained through diet or supplements. Alpha-tocopherol is the functionally active component of vitamin E and is a powerful antioxidant which helps fight against free-radical reactions. Almonds are also rich in calcium, magnesium, selenium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus and copper, and contain prebiotic properties which assist in lowering serum cholesterol level.

Almond milk is more nutritious than other plant-based milks due to its high calcium and fat content. 

Environmental Impact 

California is responsible for growing 80% of all almonds, and being a country with drought on the rise, the environmental sustainability of almond production is under scrutiny due to its high water requirement- growing just one almond requires approximately 5 litres of water.

Despite this, almonds have a small carbon footprint. Cows are accountable for 45% of methane emissions in California, whereas almonds have a carbon footprint 10 times smaller than dairy milk’s.  

Commercially it is available under the brand names Almond Breeze (US), Pure Harvest (Australia) and Alpro (UK)- for example. 

Coconut Milk 

Health Benefits 

Coconut milk is nutrient dense and a good source of fibre. It is also rich in vitamins C and E and minerals like iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and zinc. 

It contains lauric acid, a saturated fat present in human breast milk, and its consumption promotes brain development, boosts immune system functioning and maintains the elasticity of blood vessels.

There is little to no reports of allergic reactions to coconut milk, making it a product suitable for all. Other benefits of coconut milk include: digestive aid, skin nourishing and cooling properties. However, the presence of saturated fats is a potential downside. 

Environmental Impact 

Some research has shown that coconut milk production emits half the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of soy milk, and requires little water and energy compared to other plant-based milk products. 

However, coconut milk has been called environmentally unsustainable due to the emissions it produces being exported from countries like Indonesia, Philippines, and India- where they are grown- to countries where they are sold- like the US and UK.

Coconut milk is available in the market, including the brands Blue Diamond (US), Silk (US), Nutty Bruce (Australia) and Alpro (UK). 

plant-based milks
Go Coco Coconut Milk (Picture by: Zeyus Media).

Other Plant-Based Milks 

Peanut milk, sesame milk, lupin milk and tigernut milk are all high in magnesium, which can lower blood pressure, fight diabetes and improve mood. They’re also all gluten-free, making them viable options for those who are gluten intolerant or celiac, for example. Furthermore, other plant-based milk, such as quinoa, hemp, cowpea, hazelnut, sunflower and melon seed milk, are made and/or commercially available in some Western countries however lack scientific literature backing up their health benefits. Future research should investigate the many benefits of plant-based milk production and consumption from the environmental perspective in order to encourage the public to limit their cow milk ‘footprint’ and investors to help promote such products.

The above outlines the many health and environmental benefits of plant-based milks as alternatives to cow’s milk. From a holistic perspective, consuming more plant-based products can help the industry gain more traction through supply and demand, and hopefully limit the production of cow’s milk- possibly extending to all dairy products. This would decrease greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, unnecessary water use and assist in utilising land more efficiently and sustainably. The future does not require everyone to adopt a completely plant-based diet, however consuming more plant-based products and less dairy products could help decrease the adverse effects of the climate crisis, and further advance the transition to a greener society and economy.  

Featured image by: Veganbaking.net

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