Plant-based milks are having a real pop-culture moment. The available options have rapidly expanded and adding your choice of soy, almond, oat or macadamia milk to your coffee order is increasingly becoming the norm.
So what’s all the fuss about these dairy alternatives? Are plant-based milks really healthier? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular options.
The dairy dilemma
Cow’s milk has long been touted as a key part of a healthy diet due to its nutrition profile. However, researchers estimate that as much as 75% of the world’s population is actually lactose intolerant1. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose – which is the main type of carbohydrate in dairy. This can cause digestive issues including nausea, gas, stomach cramps, bloating, and even diarrhea.
Beyond lactose intolerance, dairy allergies are also a concern for some (most commonly in children, less so in adults), while others are moving toward alternatives due to environmental and ethical concerns around the dairy industry.
For those who aren’t lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, cow’s milk is rich in nutrients (the purpose of cow’s milk is to support the growth of a calf – just like human breast milk is specifically for the nourishment of a baby). And while cow’s milk is not a necessity for a healthy diet, it is an easy source of a number of key nutrients. So whatever your reason for reducing or eliminating it from your diet, one simply needs to be mindful of getting those nutrients from different sources2.
What makes a good alternative?
With so many different plant-based milk alternatives available, all with quite different nutritional profiles, there are some key things to look for when weighing up the options. Most importantly, try to avoid products that are sweetened with added sugar – the unsweetened options will always be better for you. Generally speaking, the fewer the ingredients, the better.
Also be mindful of fat content per serving and the amount of calories and carbohydrates. Many milk alternatives are also fortified with calcium, B12 and nutrients. If you have any sensitivities to gluten, nuts and soy, some plant-based milks may not be an option for you. Always check the label for specific ingredients to be sure.
Probably the most widely known and used dairy alternative, soy milk is the only plant-based milk that closely matches the protein content of cow’s milk, with half the fat and a third of the carbohydrates. As the original dairy alternative, soy milk has also been the most controversial, with fears around its hormone content and effects on the body.
Soy contains a high number of isoflavones which can affect the oestrogen receptors in the body. However, the volume of soy you would have to consume in order to have any negative effects is impossibly large, and research has shown moderate consumption to be healthy3.
Oat milk has rapidly grown in popularity recently due to its creamy flavour profile and relatively light environmental footprint. While it has a similar calorie content to cow’s milk, it can have up to double the carbohydrates and half the fat and protein. It does, however, have a very high fibre and beta-glucan content – which has been shown to help lower cholesterol4.
Made of mostly water, almond milk generally has a relatively low nutritional profile. However, some brands that have a higher nut content are slightly better. The low protein content is something to keep in mind though, and you may want to consider adding some nut butter or whole nuts to your diet to increase your protein intake if you’ve eliminated dairy.
Made from the white flesh of coconuts, coconut milk is a more diluted version of the type of coconut milk typically used in cooking. It has the lowest carbohydrate and protein content of all the milk alternatives, but it does have 4g of fat per cup. Research suggests coconut milk can help reduce appetite (due to the fat content) but there are some differing studies on its effect on cholesterol levels5. This is however nothing to be concerned about when it is consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
With the highest carbohydrate content, rice milk has the highest glycemic index rating of all the milk alternatives. This means it is rapidly absorbed by the body and raises blood sugar levels. It has a very low protein and fat content, so is not recommended for children, athletes or the elderly, who need more protein.
One of the more expensive options, hazelnut milk has a very good nutritional profile with a high calcium content, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, B and E, as well as dietary fibre. Research has shown that it also acts as an antioxidant and can help reduce cholesterol6.
Ultimately, when it comes to choosing a suitable dairy alternative, it’s up to your taste preferences and unique dietary needs. If dairy has previously made up a considerable portion of your diet, it’s recommended to speak to a healthcare professional about which plant-based options are best for you.
Published with permission @matt_le_roux_fm
Scrimshaw NS, Murray EB. The acceptability of milk and milk products in populations with a high prevalence of lactose intolerance. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988;48(4 Suppl):1079-1159. doi:10.1093/ajcn/48.4.1142. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3140651/
Kudlacek S, Freudenthaler O, Weissböeck H, Schneider B, Willvonseder R. Lactose intolerance: a risk factor for reduced bone mineral density and vertebral fractures?. J Gastroenterol. 2002;37(12):1014-1019. doi:10.1007/s005350200171 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12522532/
Dairy is a disaster. So what plant milk should we drink? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/28/what-plant-milk-should-i-drink-almond-killing-bees-aoe
Onning G, Wallmark A, Persson M, Akesson B, Elmståhl S, Oste R. Consumption of oat milk for 5 weeks lowers serum cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in free-living men with moderate hypercholesterolemia. Ann Nutr Metab. 1999;43(5):301-309. doi:10.1159/000012798 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10749030/
The 9 Best Non-dairy Substitutes for Milk. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/best-milk-substitutes#section4
Durak I, Köksal I, Kaçmaz M, Büyükkoçak S, Cimen BM, Oztürk HS. Hazelnut supplementation enhances plasma antioxidant potential and lowers plasma cholesterol levels. Clin Chim Acta. 1999;284(1):113-115. doi:10.1016/s0009-8981(99)00066-2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10437650/
Almond, hemp, oat, soy and cow’s milk: Which is best? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325425#nutritional-values