How Mindful is Your Milk of Choice?

Plant-based dairy alternatives are all the rage. Here’s what they do for your body—and for the planet.


Going dairy-free—for health or other reasons—used to require drastically altering your diet. Now, thanks to the explosion of the plant-based “milk” market, it’s never been easier. Coffee, frozen desserts, creamed soups, you name it: If a food or beverage calls for dairy, there’s now a reasonable substitute. While the FDA’s currently weighing whether these products should be allowed to call themselves “milk” (the EU doesn’t allow it), the plant-based beverage boom follows growing interest in alternatives to dairy.

A staggering 65% of the human population have trouble digesting lactose (a sugar present in cow’s milk), according to the National Institutes of Health. The highest rates of lactose intolerance occur among those of East Asian descent, but it’s also common in those of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent. Only about 5% of people of Northern European descent are lactose intolerant—some genetic experts believe this is due to a long history of dependence on milk as an important food source.

Aside from the health concerns, many people steer clear of dairy due to environmental concerns about the impacts of industrial animal farming. Conventional animal agriculture has an outsized carbon footprint, puts a massive strain on local water supplies, and…