Plant milk alternatives are growing in popularity among younger consumers, with a third of 16-24 year olds now opting for them.
These alternatives are not all the same, they are made from a variety of raw ingredients such as soybeans, rice, oats, coconut, almond, cashew, hazelnut and hemp. As a result, when choosing one, there are a few things to consider…
‘Alternative’ may not be ‘similar to’
The term ‘milk alternatives’ may give the impression that they are nutritionally similar to milk. However the nutritional content depends on the raw ingredient used, how it’s processed and what nutrients are added in.
Plant alternatives are generally lower in protein, with the exception of soy or pea-based alternatives. They also tend to be lower in micronutrients unless fortified. This is important, as cow’s milk contributes to the UK intakes of several important nutrients.
Is it fortified with micronutrients?
Despite the nutritious raw ingredients, many of the micronutrients are lost in processing to make plant-based milk alternatives. Both the Calcium found in whole almonds and Iron found in hemp seeds are usually lost during processing.
Some, but not all, plant milk alternatives are fortified with key vitamins and minerals to bring them up to similar levels found in cow’s milk. Nutrients commonly added include Vitamin D, B2, B12 and Calcium. A few are now also fortified with Iodine. In the UK, cow’s milk is a major source of Iodine which is important for thyroid function. It’s worth looking out for this addition, as Iodine deficiency affects certain population groups in the UK.
Shake your carton!
Fortified nutrients can sink to the bottom, so remember to shake the carton before you pour or you may be throwing away nutrients with the carton - you could miss out on as much as 70% of the calcium declared on the label, according to one study.
Some drinks may have added stabilisers or gum additives to help distribute the fortified nutrients throughout the drink and improve the texture.
Is it sweetened?
Plant milk alternatives made with cereals like oats and rice tend to have a higher sugar content compared with those made from nuts, seeds or legumes (for example: almond, hemp or soya). Sugars are often added to improve the taste or texture. Opting for unsweetened versions will help you limit the added sugars consumed.
Is it organic?
Due to current regulations organic products are not allowed to be fortified with vitamins and minerals. So, although they may sound a healthy option, these plant milk alternatives will be lacking in important vitamins and minerals.
Do you make it at home?
It can be fun to make your own plant milk alternatives by, for example, soaking, blending and then straining oats or almonds at home. However, these drinks will be lacking in important vitamins and minerals, so it’s important to ensure the rest of your diet is packed with nutrients.
How do you intend to use it?
Plant milk alternatives have a variety of flavours and textures, with some working better than others when used in different ways, for example:
- Soya, coconut, cashew, hazelnut or oat milk alternatives tend to work better in hot drinks. There are some special barista varieties which work really well in tea and coffee.
- Soya, rice, oat, coconut, cashew and hemp tend to work well when used in cooking.
- Canned coconut, cashew and almond milk alternatives taste great in curries and soups.
- Soya, rice, oat, coconut, cashew, hazelnut, hemp and almond work well in baking.
What’s the environmental impact?
It’s clear that moving to a more plant-based diet is one of the biggest ways to limit environmental impact. However, it’s difficult to determine which plant milk alternative is the most environmentally friendly, due to the lack of available data. Each product will vary greatly with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use and soil degradation.
For example, the main issues associated with almond milk production are water use and pesticide use, which may produce long lasting effects on the environment in drought-stricken California, where more than 80% of the world’s almonds are grown. Likewise, rice milk alternatives have a negative impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions compared with other cereals, due to the methane production of over-flooded rice paddies.
Ultimately, our diet is not defined by a single food or drink, so opt for the plant milk alternative that you enjoy the most or one that works best for how you intend to use it, or you feel most comfortable with its environmental impact.
So which milk should you use?
For taste and consistency, it depends on what you're using it for as some milks lend themselves better to certain recipes. It is worth taking into account whether the milk is fortified with Vitamin D, B2, B12, Calcium and Iodine so you are not missing out on essential nutrients. Limit your sugars by opting for unsweetened and remember alternative does not mean 'similar to'!
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BDA (2020) One Blue Dot One Blue Dot - the BDA's Environmentally Sustainable Diet Project
Heaney et al (2006) The settling problem in calcium-fortified soybean drinks J Am Diet Assoc 106(11): 1753-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2006.08.008.
Mintel (2019) A quarter of Brits use plant-based milk | Mintel.com
University of California San Francisco: Almond milk is taking a toll on the environment
Soybeans: How soybeans became a deforestation driver.How environmentally friendly is vegan milk? | Analysis & Features | The Grocer