New varieties of non-dairy ‘milk’ are hitting the market all the time. Beyond the hype, how do they stack up nutritionally?
With World Plant Milk Day recently being celebrated, there has been a renewed focus on alternatives to dairy. Globally, this industry is growing at around 14%, and is projected to reach US$42 billion by 2029. For many people, the major drivers of this change are environmental and animal welfare issues, but taste and nutrition claims are also affecting many consumers.
Whether you call it milk, mylk or something more exotic, humans have never had more choices of white liquid to pour in their coffee and on to their cereal. The main ones are oat, almond and soy, but there are also nutritious liquids based on hemp, coconut, rice and other ingredients.
To the horror of the dairy industry, these plant-based products are increasingly finding their way into cheeses, yoghurts, ice cream, confectionary and other traditionally dairy milk-based items.
Different milks each taste different, and nutritionally they have unique pros and cons. Some examples:
Old fashioned cow’s milk contains calcium, proteins, saturated fat, zinc and phosphorus, as well as vitamins B12, A, D and B2.
The dairy industry has responded to concerns about fat by providing skim and other alternatives, though the inescapable fact remains that cow milk is designed/evolved for baby cows, which have different nutritional needs to adult humans.
Like many non dairy milks, almond milk is mostly water, which means that although almonds are an excellent source of protein, there isn’t much in almond milk. It is also naturally lower in calcium than dairy, and delivers less energy. The good news is it’s low in saturated fat.
Almond milk contains Vitamin E, manganese, zinc and potassium. It is often fortified with calcium. Sweetened varieties can reduce health benefits for people like diabetics, but increase energy.
The growing number of people with nut allergies can’t drink almond milk.
Soy milk is a good source of plant protein, carbohydrates and B vitamins, and is often fortified with calcium, making it nutritionally comparable with dairy milk. As with dairy, some people are intolerant to soy. As with dairy, full and low fat versions are available.
Soy contains phytoestrogens, and there are some animal studies suggesting this is a risk for breast cancer and hyperthyroidism.
Other studies (including one done by the Cancer Council of Australia) suggests that phytoestrogens are preventative against human cancers, in most cases.
Naturally sweet oat milk is a great source of fibre, vitamin E, folate and riboflavin. It is high in carbs, so not a great choice for diabetics. It’s also low in calcium and protein, but is often fortified with these.
Quality oat milks have quite a neutral, mild flavour but others are overpoweringly oaty.
Those with gluten intolerances can have issues with oat milk, and it’s not a nutritionally adequate as a milk substitute for young children.
This drink does not contain calcium, is naturally sweet, but low in protein and carbohydrates. The big problem nutritionally is that it’s very high in saturated fat.
Baristas reportedly enjoy coconut’s artistic possibilities, but the lack of protein and weirdness under heat can cause problems when making some drinks.
This is one of the milk alternatives that is least likely to trigger allergies, but is naturally high in carbohydrates and water. Rice milk is low in protein and needs to be fortified with calcium to compete with dairy in that regard.
This milk has a high glycaemic index, which means its sugars enter the bloodstream quickly – it’s not suitable for people with diabetes.
Popular in the USA, hemp milk is increasingly being seen in Australia too. It’s a great source of protein, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also rich in vitamins (especially D) and minerals such as iron and zinc.
Hemp is naturally low in calories, but beware of sweetened versions. Barista versions are often supplemented with sunflower seed extract, which makes it extra creamy (and also raises the fat content).
Other things to think about
If you’re thinking of trying a new plant-based milk, check out the nutrition information on the back of the pack and see how it stacks up against the alternatives.
If you’re interested in planetary as well as personal health, be aware that every litre of dairy milk on average requires 8.95 square metres of land, 628.2 litres of fresh water, and leads to the emission of 3.15 kg of greenhouse gases.
By way of comparison, a litre of oat milk requires 0.76 square metres of land, a litre of almond milk requires 371.46 litres of freshwater, and a litre of rice milk emits 1.18 kg of greenhouse gases. Bear in mind that each of those milk alternatives are the worst plant-based performers in terms of those statistics.
As for what happens to the animals who are forced to produce dairy milk for humans, that’s a whole other story…