Published: May 13, 2020 By

CU Boulder undergrad’s honors thesis sheds light on sustainability of milk alternatives

If you live in Boulder County and want to consume the most sustainable dairy milk alternative, choose soy, oat or pea milk, in that order. That’s the conclusion of Mickey Redmond’s honor’s thesis, which drew high praise from professors who worked with him.

Mickey Redmond

Mickey Redmond

During spring 2019, Redmond finished his college career with a flourish, graduating with distinction from the University of Colorado Boulder College of Arts and Science’s prestigious Honors Program with a degree in environmental studies, specializing in climate and energy, with minors in geology and theatre.

“It (the Honors Program) started almost 100 years ago” in 1926, Redmond says. “It’s one of the leading undergraduate honors programs in the country. I just wanted that little bit extra, just to challenge myself.”

Perhaps that’s no surprise for a man who grew up on his family’s farms and ranches in the West, participated in hobbies such as equestrian acrobatics—basically, gymnastics on the back of moving horses—and worked as both a firefighter-medic and horse wrangler. 

“I didn’t want a linear path of college, career, retirement,” Redmond says.

Passionate about the environment, he approached Beth Osnes, associate professor of theatre, affiliate of environmental studies and co-founder of the innovative Inside the Greenhouse climate-communication project, about his final project.

“When he approached me ... he had grand ideas of how to focus on various solutions,” Osnes says. “After many conversations, he came to understand the value of making a focused contribution within his own community.”

“Beth helped me narrow the scope,” Redmond says. “It’s like ants. They can’t just take the whole cookie on the ground. They have to take it one bite at a time.”

Aiming to help people make choices with their carbon footprint in mind, he decided to research and analyze plant-based milk alternatives. On March 20, after more than 18 months of work, he successfully defended the resulting honors thesis, “Searching for the Optimal Plant-Based Milk Alternative as it relates to the Environmental Impact for residents of Boulder County, Colorado.”

For the first stage of his research, Redmond identified 16 plant-based milk alternatives made from almonds, bananas, cashews, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), coconuts, hemp, flax, macadamia nuts, oats, peas, pistachio nuts, quinoa, peanuts, rice, soy and walnuts. 

He then narrowed the list down to 12 based on reliable accessibility.

“This primary stage is about availability, accessibility by both producers and consumers,” he says. “Is it legitimately sustainable in a market?”

It’s not every day that a CU student’s honors thesis has such potential for broad appeal. … The committee agreed that he made an authentic contribution to his own community,​"

The second stage eliminated three more based on nutritional profiles, for example, removing alternatives that were high in sugars or low in healthy protein or fats. The remaining nine alternatives were then thoroughly evaluated for the environmental impact of production, distribution and consumption, specifically for residents of Boulder County. 

He ultimately found that the best choices are soymilk, oat milk and pea milk, in that order.

“This was largely based on the fact that these are stable crops, ubiquitously grown from Texas to Canada, having low carbon footprints and high accessibility for both producers and consumers,” Redmond says. 

These crops are stable in different environments, require less water than, say, growing an orchard, and all are high in protein. Soymilk’s nutrient profile most closely matches that of dairy products, he says.

Redmond spent a full year developing and synthesizing quantifiable measurements for comparing the unique alternatives.

“Actually, there was a huge amount of quantification, way more than you’d think,” he says. “The data sources are difficult; how do you compare the water use and carbon output of a cashew tree to a legume? … One method is to start with the final product-output and work backwards. How many cashews or peas are required to make one gallon of milk? Take that volume and work backwards to determine unit inputs.”

Redmond’s honors-thesis committee was impressed by the quality and practical applicability of his research.

“It’s not every day that a CU student’s honors thesis has such potential for broad appeal. … The committee agreed that he made an authentic contribution to his own community,” Osnes says. “He achieved many of the most effective methods for successful climate communication through his work, such as focusing on a single solution, keeping it local, leveraging people’s already held values and emphasizing co-benefits for pro-environmental behaviors.”