I don’t necessarily need to take milk products out of my diet. But as a consumer who is curious about cooking, nutrition, and innovative uses for ingredients, seeing non-dairy, plant-based milk alternatives seemingly everywhere I turn makes me curious to know more.
For some individuals, belly and headaches or allergic reactions make a switch from all things dairy to a non-dairy alternative a requisite reality beyond mere curious inquiry or choice. Others may switch from dairy because they like a different taste or texture, or want an additional nutrient that a milk alternative offers. Whatever the reason, there is quite a variety of dairy milk alternatives to choose from, for purposes as varied as morning coffee, cereal, smoothies, or mashed potatoes.
Here’s an overview of what you need to know about non-dairy, milk-alternative beverages.
Reasons People Try a Non-Dairy, Milk-Alternative
✓ Lactose intolerance
✓ Milk allergy
✓ Don’t like milk, but like creamy taste or need a milk-like product for cooking
✓ Vegan diet or lifestyle
✓ Concerns about inflammation
✓ Crohns and Colitis or inflammatory bowel syndrome
✓ Concerns over antibiotics, pesticides, or hormones
✓ Ethical concerns
1. Variety: The Glass is Half Full
I’ve made an enjoyable berry coconut panna cotta (dairy-free, and paleo) for a dinner party, I froth almond milk regularly in my coffee, drink soy on occasion, and have tried most types of the non-dairy milk alternatives. Although oat milk has been around since 1990, it recently has popped up in the US (earlier in Europe) as a trendy milk alternative at coffee shops. Besides coconut, almond, soy, and oat, a trip to my local market illuminated me on the variety of other plant-based milks I am missing out on: hemp, pea, cashew, hazelnut, quinoa, macadamia, rice, and flax are all options too.
What distinguishes different plant-based milks? From the consumer standpoint, flavor, nutrition, ingredients, taste, cost, diet or lifestyle, availability, and health are all important factors to consider.
2. The Name of the Game is…Milks, Mylks, Malks
Firstly, what should these beverages be called? Speaking of milks, have you heard the commotion about what beverages are called when they are made with almonds? “Almonds don’t lactate” but they do produce milk. Others have voiced their concerns about calling anything not from animals, “milk”.
Beyond sustaining a plant origin, these nut milks have also come under fire because certain brands contain more ingredients than just water and nuts, making them better suited under the classification of a beverage. The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of offering further regulations to industry on labeling plant-based products with names of dairy foods like “milk,” “yogurt,” or “cheese.” You can weigh in on the name of these beverages in the FDA’s public comment period, as it is currently extended until January 28, 2019.
3. Nutritional Comparison
A side-by-side comparison of the following plant-based milk alternatives (oat, hazelnut, hemp, coconut, cashew, almond, soybean, rice, pea, flaxseed) showed some interesting ingredient similarities and differences based on nutritional value per 1 cup serving of beverage.
Compared to 1 cup of whole fat, cow milk:
- Oat milk has almost as many calories as cow milk (130 vs. 148). Almond, rice, coconut, hemp, and cashew milk are lower in calories.
- Most have 25-63% of the fat of cow milk, with the exception of Hemp (8 g)
- All are lower in sugar (<3 g) except for Oat and Hazelnut (17 g and 13 g vs. 12 g)
- All are lower in protein except Soybean, Pea, and Flaxseed (9 g, 8g, and 8 g. vs. 8 g)
- All have comparable sodium except coconut, which is much lower (15 mg vs. 105 mg)
- Pea protein milk has more potassium than cow milk (450 vs. 322 mg); soy is comparable (390 mg)
- Almond, pea, and flaxseed milk have more calcium than cow milk (560, 560, 450 mg vs. 425 mg)
Dairy-alternative milks tend to have fewer calories, less fat (except for coconut-based milk), more water content (for better hydration), less protein (except soy). Some are fortified with other vitamins and nutrients.
While having less fat, protein, and calories in a milk alternative may be a perk for adult consumers, for children, these may be important limitations for parents to consider.
4. Health Considerations
The primary consumers of dairy milk are children. Those who may be allergic to dairy may try another source. Some research has explored if plant-based milks are as good for kids as dairy milk to help them grow and timing of when it is fine for kids to consume them. A cup serving of whole milk provides 8 g of high-quality protein with all of the essential amino acids (60% of the Recommended Daily allowance for toddlers, and 40% of the RDA for young children).
Milk is a good source of vitamin D, calcium, and protein, and as such, includes ingredients that support growth in children. How do non-dairy beverages measure up in terms of growth? One study found an association between non-cow milk beverage consumption and lower childhood height.
There are certain nutrients that are most important at different stages within the first 2 years of a child’s life, such as high calories, iron and protein. At these young ages, breast milk or formula are recommended over other alternatives, not only for what they do contain, but also for what they do not: babies develop the systems to process certain ingredients – like sodium – that aren’t yet introduced in breast milk or formula later on.
Did you know that milk is low in iron, and calcium in milk inhibits iron absorption? Your main source of iron should not be the same as that of your calcium. Try consuming your iron source with your vitamin C for better absorption.
Can non-dairy milks measure up?
Not before the age of 2 years, and more long-term research is needed for older children. While lactose intolerance or milk allergies may drive a search for a non-dairy alternative, some of the non-dairy alternatives aren’t suitable for people with allergies to nuts or soy. Always consult your pediatrician or physician if you have questions.
- contains all the essential amino acids, but soy is also one of the 8 common allergens that people may be intolerant or sensitive to as well.
- is the most nutritionally balanced of the plant-based milk alternatives, and closest to cow’s milk.
- is a good alternative for those who don’t like almond flavor and are concerned about calories, however, it is not a great option for those looking specifically for protein in a milk substitute.
- calories mainly come from carbohydrates, making it a good option for active people pre-exercise, particularly for those with nut, dairy, or soy sensitivities.
- is one of few plant-based complete proteins, containing all the essential amino acids, and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
- is made out of whole hemp seeds from the hemp plant, cannabis sativa. Although it is the same plant used make marijuana and CBD(cannabidiol)-infused products that are gaining popularity in the wellness marketplace, hemp milk does not induce any of the psychoactive effects of marijuana because it only contains trace amounts of psychoactive THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
- free of soy, lactose, and gluten.
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5. Environmental Concerns
The environmental impacts from farming the essential ingredients for these plant-based milk alternatives are another concern. Spending on these alternative milks has risen while consumption of cow’s milk has dropped. Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford, recently released a study that compared green house gases from over 10,000 farms around the world that produce cow, almond, coconut, and soymilks. In that study, they found that dairy milk uses 9 times more land to make a liter of dairy milk than a liter of rice, soy, oat, or almond milk.
However, plant-based milks can also have consequential environmental impact. Almonds require irrigation, exerting tremendous pressure on water resources. Rice emits the most greenhouse gases from the methane that bacteria create in flooded rice paddys. Soy and oat milks require more land, perhaps requiring deforestation depending on where the land is. Dietary changes (for instance, switching from dairy to plant-based diets) and the long-term environmental costs for consumer choices should be considered by agricultural producers.
6. A Plant Walks into the Kitchen…
You will rarely find me with a glass of cold regular milk, but I enjoy dairy products. I haven’t left cow milk behind forever: for other milk products, ice creams, cheeses and yogurts, I have dabbled with sampling but haven’t found a true substitute that I love.
As for any kitchen lessons I’ve learned so far, certain flavors do combine better with certain products. Chocolate hazelnut milk makes coffee taste like a Nutella treat, and oat milk is great as a regular latte. Perhaps more challenging than heating cow milk, heating almond or other plant-based milks requires care, as they do not do as well when heated (proteins in the milks can change form when heated too high). If you enjoy the taste, coconut milk makes a pretty good base for frozen dessert, soup, cream sauce, or puddings.
Plant-based milks offer an added benefit for the home chefs in the room. You can make nut milks yourself at home using milk, nuts, water, salt, a blender, jar, cheesecloth, and time – no farm animals required. See this site for some other helpful suggestions for the best uses for a number of plant-based milks.
Compared to a gallon of regular cow milk, or organic cow milk, which is on average $4.08/gallon, alternatives can be more expensive for the same volume, with the exception of some varieties of almond, coconut, flaxseed, cashew, or rice milk.
If you are looking for a milk substitute that you plan to consume often, look for the purest beverage with the best value: find the best option in your price range that is unsweetened, has nutrients important to you, and doesn’t contain a lot of thickening agents.
TIP: You may have to try a few to find one you prefer, but, some stores have a policy where they will allow you to try a product and return it if you aren’t satisfied, or sample it in store.
8. Your Choice
Would you switch to plant-based milks? Add them in occasionally? There is certainly a lot to think about when switching from cow milk to a non-dairy alternative. Consumers have choice, and dollars spent can shape the market of offerings.
This choice is not necessarily simple: even within non-dairy alternatives, definitive answers to important health questions remain: what is the long-term effect of soy isoflavones on estrogen receptors and hormone function? Does this affect women and men differently? Are the additives and preservatives in plant-based milk alternatives safe, or are only pure milks good? Do nut milks add too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 fats – is this pro-inflammatory? Do non-dairy milks need to be organic? These questions demonstrate that there is yet more for researchers to understand.
As consumers become savvier about their preferences for non-dairy milk substitutes, I am hopeful that the products will meet the demand for healthy, affordable options. Cheers – let’s raise a cold glass of your choice of milk to this. May there be a suitable form of milk in the coffee/cereal/cup of all who desire it.