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Walk through any dairy aisle in 2023 and you’ll be overwhelmed by the boundless choices of milk. Sure, you’ve got your standard dairy options: skim, 1%, 2% and whole milk. But in recent years, plant-based options have become omnipresent, to the point where you can now find cartons of milk made from peas, sesame seeds and pistachios. No longer does soy and almond milk rule the roost as the market becomes increasingly crowded. The Food and Drug Administration recently ruled, to the anger of the dairy industry, that these products can indeed use the word ‘milk’ on their labels.
Though specific techniques vary by brand, the process of making milk from plants is fairly simple: nuts, seeds, grains or legumes are soaked, blended with water and then strained to remove any solids. After which other ingredients including vitamins, sweeteners, oils and thickeners can be added.
If you have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, plant-based milk is, without question, a great option for you. Finally, a latte without later-on tummy issues. But, these days, many people are making the switch believing that these drinks are a healthier option than cow’s milk. In recent years, it’s become trendy to vilify cow’s milk for its saturated fat content, impact on the environment and status as a common allergen.
But are plant-based kinds of milk actually any good for you? Here are some important things you need to know about the nutrition of these milk masquerading products before you float your cereal in the stuff.
Save for soy milk and newer on the market pea milk which have about 8 grams and 5 grams in a cup, respectively, plant-based milks are typically very low in protein. Some like almond, rice and coconut milk can barely have a single gram of this macronutrient in a cup serving. So they will do little on their own to help you pack on muscle. It can take several cups of many of the products on the market to get the same amount of protein you obtain from a single glass of cow’s milk, which remains best in class for protein quality. There are a few options on the market now that are being beefed up with extra protein from sources such as soy protein isolate and pea protein.
This dearth of protein is not a big issue if you are just adding a splash of oat or almond milk to your coffee as you would not be getting much protein from milk or cream in this instance anyway, but it can be a concern if you are giving up dairy completely and not making up for the loss of quality protein elsewhere in your diet.
A serious concern when making plant milk the base of your post-gym protein shakes is that they can include a concerning amount of added sugars. Unless you buy those labeled “unsweetened” assume sugar has been added to a non-dairy milk. The words “vanilla”, “chocolate” and even “original” on the carton are good tip-offs the drink has been sweetened. A cup of chocolate almond or cashew milk can deliver up to 19 grams of added sugar in a cup serving, which is a lot. Plain cow’s milk does contain sugar but this is all naturally occurring in the form of lactose which for people who are not sensitive to it does not pose the same health risks as sugars that are added to foods and drinks. Drinks made from oats, peas and rice will have a higher naturally occurring sugar content than those made from nuts like almonds and cashews.
When using plant-based milks, keep an eye on the vitamin and mineral content which can be alarmingly low. (The process that makes plant-based milk typically results in a liquid with little of the nutrition found in the item it is made from.) Many of the non-dairy milks on store shelves are now fortified with vitamins and minerals in an attempt to make them nutritionally more similar to cow’s milk. But not all brands add these in as it is not mandatory. So look for options enhanced with nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, the same items you would get when drinking moo juice. If the drink you are using is not beefed up with these you’ll need to make sure to get them elsewhere in your diet so you don’t come up short. Consumers of milk-alternative drinks may be at greater of risk iodine deficiency, according to the findings of a study in the British Journal of Nutrition. The researchers discovered that the majority of plant-based drinks did not have adequate levels of iodine, with concentration levels found to be around 2% of that present in cows’ milk. There is virtually no plant milk on the market that is fortified with iodine. Iodine is required to make thyroid hormones and, thus, important for the functioning of this organ. If you avoid milk and other dairy products, you need to ensure that you are getting iodine from other dietary sources, which include seafood, seaweed and iodized salt.
Interestingly, new research shows if you’re concerned about your vitamin and mineral intake, some plant-based milks may be better than others. A comprehensive nutrient analysis presented at the fall 2022 meeting of the American Chemical Society, showed that two types of plant-based milk—pea milk and soy milk—had higher levels of four essential minerals found in cow’s milk: magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium. These are items you won’t find on nutrition labels but are essential for good body functioning. Other drinks in the analysis were almond, cashew, oat, rice, hemp, and coconut, with the latter testing for the lowest levels of these micronutrients. However, the researchers said there could be high variation in micronutrients across brands. None of the plant-based milks in this research could top cow’s milk for zinc levels. Dairy milk also had the same or more phosphorus and selenium than all alternatives except pea milk, as well as higher amounts of magnesium than all save for soy and hemp milk.
If you are trying to trim a few calories from your diet to trim a few pounds off your frame then it can be reassuring to know that plant-based milks are typically less caloric than dairy milk. A cup of unsweetened oat milk has about 45 calories with the same amount of sugar-free almond delivering a mere 30 calories. A cup serving of 2% cow milk delivers about 122 calories. Of course, the addition of sugars will bump up the calorie count a bit. So these products can certainly help you stay below a daily calorie threshold.
With this said, you should know that the stingy calorie counts are a tip-off you are paying for a lot of water. Considering that a cup of whole almonds has roughly 828 calories yet a cup of unsweetened almond milk may have only 30 calories it is clear the nutrition of the nuts has been watered down. So don’t expect to get anywhere the same levels of beneficial fats, micronutrients like vitamin E (some brands add this back in) and fiber when nuts are milked.
When you scan the ingredient list of plant-based milk you’ll often find carrageenan, locust bean gum, guar gum, or other emulsifiers. These are commonly used in various processed foods like plant-based milks to improve texture, flavor, and shelf life. While most people don’t give these much thought, emerging research is questioning whether we should be eating them so liberally. Conducted by French researchers, a 2023 study in The BMJ followed a group of nearly 100,000 participants, predominantly female, and discovered that those with higher intakes of emulsifiers were at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Some other recent research has indicated that emulsifiers can disturb gut bacteria. But before you write off these drinks completely because of these additives it’s important to keep in mind that we still don’t have any data to show that consuming reasonable amounts of them poses a health risk and whether some types of emulsifiers are more detrimental than others. The deleterious effects may not be generalizable across all emulsifiers.
Bottom line: If you are thinking of making the switch from cow’s milk to plant-based ones, or just want to include one or two in your diet for the sake of variety, there is certainly nothing stopping you from doing so. Just be aware that most should not be considered nutritious and deserving of the health halo they have been awarded. Always keep the following points in mind when using these products:
Step One: Place 1 cup old fashioned rolled oats in a bowl, and add enough water to cover by a couple of inches. Set aside to soak for 15 minutes.
Step Two: Drain the soaked oats in a sieve and rinse them thoroughly under running water to prevent your milk from becoming slimy.
Step Three: Place oats in a blender container along with 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt. You can also add 1 teaspoon of vanilla for flavor. Blend on high speed until the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute. Add another 2 cups water and blend again for 20 seconds.
Step Four: To strain, place a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth over a pitcher or large glass jar and pour the mixture through. Chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. Refrigerate for up to 5 days