5 Top Tips for choosing your perfect plant-based milk & cheese (Guest Post)

I’m very excited today, to share a guest post written by Emma Oddie from Ethical Consumer Magazine, as part of a mutual collaboration.

It’s fair to say that there has been an explosion in veganism in recent years. The number of vegans quadrupled in the UK from 2014 to 2019 to a total of over 600,000. Every single supermarket now stocks vegan ranges and more and more people are bringing vegan choices into their diet, whether it’s by a leap into veganism or a few tentative flexitarian steps.

But this shift isn’t welcomed by all. Plant-based milk and cheese have been criticised by many a journalist linking these products to deforestation, pesticides and excessive water use. While there is no doubt that these products help to protect animals, people and the planet, some pack more plant-powered, planet-protecting punch than others. Emma Oddie from Ethical Consumer magazine explains how to navigate the plant-based shelves and select vegan milk and cheese that fit with your ethics and values.

You are already making a great choice

The most important thing to know is that all plant-based milk and cheese is better than dairy. So, whatever brand you choose, know that you are already making a great choice. Dairy production uses more land, water, fertiliser and pesticide than the plants destined for vegan milk and cheese.

Even soya production, a practice that is linked with deforestation, hides a different story when you dig under the headlines. Of all the soya grown in Brazil, only 6% is consumed by humans, most of it is produced for feeding livestock.

By cutting out the cow, you are slashing your carbon footprint. Plant-based milk produces less than half of the carbon emissions emitted by dairy milk production and uses less than a quarter of the land.

That is great news in itself. But how do you make your impact stretch further?

Here are our top tips for choosing plant-based milk and cheese that meets your values, tastes and dietary needs.

Top tip #1 Choose organic

Certified organic ingredients automatically guarantee better workers’ rights and safer production conditions – removing pesticides and fertilisers is better for the environment too. Almond and oat production is notorious for excessive pesticide use; a recent study reported by the Guardian found that glyphosates were found in most oat-based food. If you’re partial to almond or oat milk, then opt for organic varieties to avoid potentially harmful and persistent pesticides. We recommend The Bridge for a wide range of plant-based organic milk, including oat and almond. For organic, plant-based cheese, we recommend New Roots for their delicious range of artisan varieties.

Top tip #2 Pick Fairtrade

Chocolate, coffee and bananas probably come to mind when you think of Fairtrade products, but Fairtrade is just as important when choosing plant-based milk and cheese.

Most of the plant-based cheese available in supermarkets is made from coconut and the production of these versatile fruits can be riddled with issues. Nearly all coconuts are grown by smallholders in Indonesia, the Philippines and India and coconut farmers often live in extreme poverty, many with average earnings of $1 a day. By choosing Fairtrade products, you help to ensure that producers get a fair price and help to support the communities working in this industry. Lucy Bee coconut milk has the highest rating in our ethical scoring of all plant-based milk and we also recommend Mouse’s Favourite for creamy, coconutty cheese.

Coconuts aren’t the only ingredient causing issues, cashew-based cheeses have their issues too. Cashews, when shelled by hand, can release chemicals that can burn the skin and lead to severe pain and even permanent damage. Make sure you choose suppliers with supply chains that can guarantee worker protection. Happy Cheeze only uses suppliers that use mechanical shelling and Tyne Chease carries out regular audits on working conditions.  

Top tip #3 Shop local

Many health and whole food stores are now stocking plant-based milk and cheese, with some buying from local producers. Some vegan cafes and restaurants are also creating their own milk and cheese, so make sure you ask the waiter next time you’re dining out. Now more than ever, it’s important to support your local retail and hospitality businesses, some of whom haven’t been able to trade for months. If you can visit, make sure you give your trade to independents before your big, local supermarket.

Top tip #4 Be picky about your packaging  

Most plant-based milk is available in Tetra Pak cartons but some brands also offer plastic bottles. So, which should you choose?

Each Tetra Pak carton has a carbon footprint of around 40 grams (3-6% of the carton contents), three to four times less than a plastic bottle. Thanks to increased recycling services, many local authorities now accept Tetra Pak for kerbside collection and this makes cartons the clear winner. Tetra Pak can’t be recycled into new cartons, but the card can be recycled into paper and the plastic and aluminium lining made into roof materials.

Unfortunately, nearly all plant-based cheese packaging is plastic and most are unrecyclable films. However, some online cheese companies are providing compostable and paper-based packaging and some are pledging to remove plastic altogether. If you have a good local supplier, you might be able to take your own containers and refill your milk and cheese packaging free.

Top tip #5 Don’t hand your £s to the dairy industry

This tip certainly sounds a bit strange. You’ve made the switch from dairy to plant-based milk and cheese so how can you be supporting the dairy industry? It’s because the dairy industry is meeting you there. As the vegan market has grown, many dairy manufacturers are jumping on the vegan bandwagon and diversifying their offering.

The Vitalite brand is owned by Saputo, a Canadian global cheese company that processes 11 billion tonnes of milk a year and Applewood is owned by Norway’s largest dairy producer. The funding behind vegan milk and cheese brands extends into other areas that many may find in conflict with their values. Violife is owned by KKR, a company that invests in pharmaceuticals that test on animals and other companies that produce meat products. Alpro is owned by Group Danone that sells meat and dairy products.

Even Oatly has been in the news recently with its links to unsavoury investment.

Oatly recently accepted a $200 million investment from investment company Blackstone in exchange for a 10% stake in the company. Blackstone is part-owned by Stephen Schwartzman who donated a substantial sum of money to the Trump election campaign and is accused of financial links to companies involved in deforestation in the Amazon. Blackstone also owns a shipping terminal in Brazil that is directly linked with facilitating deforestation. Oatly certainly isn’t the worst of the bunch and it clearly has a lot of sound ethical practices, but we’ve taken this into account when ranking Oatly against other brands in our vegan milk report.

It’s worth considering the background behind the brands when choosing where to spend your money. All vegan brands are certainly not created equal.

Remember – you are already making a difference

As with all purchases, it’s important to think about what kind of activity your consumption is funding. If you’re vegan, you don’t want to be funding the dairy industry and if you care about the environment, you certainly don’t want to be funding deforestation.

But remember…just by choosing plant-based products over dairy or meat, you already making a massive difference, to animals, people and planet. A University of Oxford study in 2018, reported by The Independent, found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet is the single biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint, slashing emissions by 73%.

Of course, some plant-based milk and cheese are better than others and there is a myriad of factors to consider – cost and nutrition being important ones too. The production of all food comes at a price to the planet, but plant-based products cost much, much less.

Special Offer for Monsoon of Random readers

Get access to detailed ethical ratings of 1000s of brands, to help you make the right choices every time you shop, with a 14-month subscription of Ethical Consumer Magazine for the price of 12.

To receive the offer, please enter “Monsoon offer” in the notes fields on the order review page when you subscribe. Visit https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/subscriptions for more information.

I’d like to thank Emma and the team at Ethical Consumer for putting together this article for me to share with you. I really hope you have enjoyed it, and highly recommend the subscription offer above. Thanks for reading!

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