Consumers Seek Health and Environmental Benefits by Purchasing Plant-Based Food and Beverage Products

American consumers spent $1.6 billion on plant-based beverages and foods as substitutes for milk and dairy products, (August 2017 to June 2018), a 20 percent increase over the previous year.)1 Improvements in taste, a wider variety of offerings and reduced prices have helped spur sales of this category of plant-based products.

Plant-based substitutes appeal to consumers because they are perceived as “healthier” for people and the planet. Nutritional and environmental science, however, tells a more nuanced story.2

Such products are fortified to achieve nutrient levels close to those of cow’s milk, but the nutrient content varies by brand. Additional sugar and other ingredients may also be added to improve taste.

The environmental footprint of animal and plant-based milk also varies depending on the production methods and the measures used to calculate the environmental impact.  Both animal and plant-based products can be produced in sustainable and unsustainable ways.  Improvements in genetics and feed efficiency and better animal care practices enable cows to produce more milk and less methane. Greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based systems are lower, but water use must be carefully managed, especially as the climate changes.

In both animal and plant production systems, land-use best practices are vital to sustainability. Expanding the amount of land used for crop or livestock production to generate more output runs the risk of releasing carbon from the soil and reducing biodiversity.

There are nutritional and environmental trade-offs in animal and plant-based food production. Reading product labels and researching the production practices of their favorite brands is the best way for consumers to know which products most closely reflect their nutritional needs and environmental values.

 


 

  1. “2018 Retail Sales Data for Plant-Based Foods,” Plant Based Food Association online, accessed on July 31, 2018.
  2. Tom Levitt, “Cow’s Milk Or Almond Milk? Ethical Food Choices Are Not As Simple As You Think
    It’s not just about cutting out certain foods,” Huffington Post, June 7, 2018.

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