The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Restaurants and coffee shops should not charge extra for milk alternatives

4 min read
A white mug of coffee with white foam on top sits on a brown wooden table.

Charging extra for milk alternatives discriminates against people who cannot drink traditional dairy milk. | Jason Villanueva, Pexels


Staff Writer

With the rise of plant-based milks, many people choose to put these in their coffee over traditional cow’s milk. Plant-based milk alternatives have been found to be significantly more sustainable and produce a much smaller carbon footprint when compared to dairy milk. Despite this, consumers are slapped with an upcharge when choosing alternative milks. There should be no upcharge for plant-based milks.  

According to Medline Plus, about 65% of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose. 

Those who struggle with lactose intolerance can feel a difference between vegan milk and dairy milk. “I have stomach problems, and I feel much better after switching from cow milk to plant-based milk,” said Lauren Quinn, a senior biomedical sciences major. 

On Jan. 5, 2022, Starbucks dropped all of its vegan milk upcharges across 1,020 stores in the U.K. Locations across the U.S. are still subject to a 70-cent upcharge for milk alternatives, including oatmilk, almond milk, soy milk and coconut milk. 

As someone who frequents Starbucks and recently discovered I have a dairy allergy, it is frustrating that I have to pay more because I am unable to drink cow’s milk. The upcharge may not seem like much, but it accumulates over time. 

If someone were to get a $4 coffee with cow’s milk three times a week at Starbucks, they would pay $624 over the course of a year. If that person decided to switch to a plant based alternative, they would pay $733 over the year. Because of this upcharge, students should opt to spend their flex dollars at Katora or Panera. Katora is a vegan coffee shop on campus that does not upcharge for most plant based milks, with the exception of coconut milk. Panera does not charge extra for plant based milk.  

Apart from health concerns, many people choose plant-based milk because of its sustainability. 

Peter Little, a senior economics major, chooses plant-based milk to try to help with the ongoing environmental crisis. He said, “I used to drink cow’s milk, but I realized that choosing a dairy alternative was more sustainable and used significantly less water.”

Dairy milk ranks the highest in emissions, land use and water use in comparison to other products. Producing one glass of dairy milk requires about 120 liters of water, while one glass of soy milk requires under 10 liters. Almond milk requires about 70 liters of water, being the most water-intensive alternative. Oat milk requires a similar number to soy, about 10 liters of water per glass. All non-dairy alternatives are better for the environment than dairy milk, but opting for oat or soy milk over almond milk is the most environmentally friendly option due to this discrepancy in water usage. 

Another factor to consider when comparing the price of these products is the shelf life. Pasteurized dairy milk has a shelf life of 12-14 days, while dairy alternatives have shelf lives of roughly 3-4 weeks. This means that a coffee shop would have to buy dairy milk more often because of its shorter shelf life. 

The use of dairy milk has been on a steady decline for decades. There have been many dairy campaigns trying to promote it, but milk alternatives have still been increasing in popularity. 

Some argue that without milk, you are not able to get enough calcium or protein in your diet. Milk alternatives often have less calories and less fat than dairy milk. One cup of soy milk is cholesterol-free compared to dairy milk, which has twelve milligrams of cholesterol. Soy milk also contains nine grams of protein in a cup and dairy milk only contains eight grams. 

However, this concern for a lack of nutrients is misguided. Many non-dairy options come with added calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and riboflavin. 

Quinn, who drinks coffee about three to four times a week, says the health benefits were another factor she considered when switching to plant-based alternatives. 

“I choose plant-based milk over cow milk because plant-based milk is usually lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than cow milk,” said Quinn. 

Plant-based milks have been shown to have a large number of benefits, both ecologically and health-wise. Because of this, plant-based milks should not be subject to a surcharge, especially because they are not considerably more expensive than dairy.

While plant-based milk is generally more expensive, this is because dairy is too cheap.  Additionally, the study from Food Dive found that plant-based milk is more expensive due to bottling procedures and packaging materials. Dairy milk had essentially no research and development costs, with the greatest share of the price going toward raw material. 

As consumers are moving toward a more sustainable future, major companies like Starbucks should make sustainable options more accessible by slashing their vegan milk upcharge, following other companies such as Panera and Katora.