Does soy milk give you breasts? Nutrition scare stories stick in the mind and often require unwedging. As for this one? The short answer is no.
Milk substitutes – almond milk, oat milk, hazelnut milk – get a lot of flak. Some say they are hypocritical, others that they are unhealthy, bad for the planet, use too much water or shouldn’t be called milk at all.
Many of the shots fired masquerade as legitimate, informed concerns, be they medical, ecological or nutritional. However, many of them require little research to dislodge.
Does soy milk give you breasts?
Criticisms of soy include the causation of hormonal misbalance or a ‘feminising’ effect on men (untrue / incomprehensively tested / tested on animals rather than humans). One man reported increased oestrogen levels and breast tenderness but he was drinking six pints of soy milk a day. Too much, as they say, of a good thing.
Soy milk contains phytoestrogens, which bind to the receptors oestrogen would bind to. As a result, consuming large amounts of soy milk can actually have an anti-oestrogenic effect on the body. Either way, the effects are negligible if you drink sensible quantities (less than six pints a day)!
Soy and mono-culturism
Soy is also panned for its mono-culturism. Production has increased fifteen-fold since the 1950s and is mostly limited to the US, Brazil and Argentina. It’s true soy accounts for the second-largest portion of deforestation worldwide – after cattle ranching. Plantations are ploughed into land which, for generations, has been used for subsistence farming.
The forest, rugged yet fragile, loses its balance. More than 200 tribes, comprising 650,000 indigenous Brazilians, are threatened by the expansion of agricultural and grazing (soy and ranching) land. Jaguars are dying.
So is soy farming bad? On such grand scales yes but 70% to 75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. 32 million acres of South American soy-growing land feeds Europe’s meat and dairy industries – equivalent to three Switzerlands. So with ranching in the top position and soy, three-quarters of which is converted into animal feed, in second place, any criticism of soy monocultural deforestation could be more justly levelled at the meat industry.
Is almond milk bad for the environment?
Almond milk has come under fire too for its allegedly astronomical levels of water wastage – a wave of criticism set off by a dietary consultant of the dairy industry, albeit a lactose-free arm.
A widely shared graphic, cited by the BBC, shows almond milk water use to be substantially higher than that of oat, soy or rice milk. Almonds are one of the most water-intensive crops in California, requiring about one gallon per almond. However, dairy milk water use is still almost twice as high.
The results derive from a University of Oxford study. Taking into account 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, the study found the effect of the “lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins”, almost across the board. It shows as much as 105kg of CO2 is produced per 100g of beef protein, compared with 3.5kg of CO2 per 100g of tofu protein. The Guardian’s environment editor talks about this too.
Save the bees, drink dairy?
During the winter of 2018–19, an estimated 50 billion bees were “wiped out” during the Californian almond harvest. However, the news articles and opinion pieces that investigate this point to industrialised farming methods as the primary culprit.
A typical line runs as follows:
If you’ve given up dairy in a quest to be a little kinder to the planet, we’ve got bad news. Your almond milk latte obsession may be doing more harm than good.
This is incorrect. Compared with regular lattes, almond lattes are doing much less harm than good.
When Piers Morgan weighed in on almond milk
Bandwagon/shifting-the-blame criticism like this prompted high-grade opinion-haver Piers Morgan to tweet: “The mass slaughter of billions of bees is on YOU vegans [and] vegetarians”. However, only 1/25 of almonds are used to make almond milk (my estimate, calculations below).
[The US produces 2 million tonnes of almonds per year. Global almond milk sales for 2018 were almost $6 billion. Divide this by a conservatively low retail cost per litre ($1.50) = four billion litres, consisting of 98% non-almond ingredients (water, vitamins, salt, oil, etc.). If 2% of almond milk’s mass comes from almonds, about 80 million kg (or 80,000 tonnes) is the total mass of almonds required to keep up with annual almond milk demand, out of total almond production of two million tonnes (in the US alone), accounting for just 4% of almonds produced.]
Drinking the milk of a cow does nothing to salvage the fate of the bees. Plus, if the lives and livelihoods of droves of bees are of value, why should the mass slaughter of larger mammals be ignored? Per litre, almond milk accounts for a quarter of the carbon emissions of dairy milk.
Oat, cashew, hazelnut and rice milk
As far as I can tell, no-one has a beef with oats. The Oatly brand got a bit of stick for selling shares to China Resources and running an ad campaign tagged with a line reminiscent of a ‘quit drinking’ slogan but, besides that, it’s hard to find any criticism online. Drink away.
The cashew industry presents an ethical dilemma but, again, that has nothing to do with cashews being processed into milk.
In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report exposed conditions in Vietnamese forced-labour camps in which cashew nuts were processed. Thankfully this practice has been put to an end. Still, cashews are harvested and processed manually, which takes several steps. Caustic oil contained in cashew shells cause painful burns and lung irritation.
Turkey produces and exports three-quarters of the world’s hazelnuts, 30% of them sold to Germany. Productivity is affected by disease and climate. No highlighted concerns.
Rice milk is fine as long as you don’t drink solely rice milk while eating nothing but rice. Criticism is hard to find while, if you have a nut allergy, you can still drink this because it doesn’t contain nuts.
Basically, it seems cashew, hazelnut and rice milk don’t offend anyone because they aren’t popular enough to challenge the status quo.
Plant-based milk substitutes are no longer the domain of the hip, nor do they belong to alternative communities. They have firmly wedged themselves into everyday life. Sacrifices no longer have to be made. Pathos, or ‘loving animals’, is no longer required to make the transition.
What you can do
Make your own milk – almond, oat, soy, even cashew and hazelnut (although these last two are costly). Source your products as locally as possible, control the variables, drink at your leisure.
Buy organic and/or local – no pesticides, less water, less guilt.
Consider the options – Mammals are only supposed to drink animal milk while they are suckling. It makes much more sense to make opaque white protein-filled liquid from plants instead. Try all of them and see which you like best. Pea milk might be the next big thing in the UK!
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