You can’t walk sit in a café these days without overhearing someone order an almond-milk latte. Is this just millennial pretentiousness? Or are plant-based milks better for you?
While across the country, cow’s milk still dominates the market, its sales are declining. With more and more plant-based options more customers are choosing to go a different way.
What are Plant-Based Milks?
Technically plant-based milk isn’t milk at all; it is the liquid produced by mixing ground plants and nuts with water. Some common options include soy milk, rice milk, nut milk such as almond, cashew, hazelnut, and peanut, or coconut milk. You can also buy oat milk, potato milk, quinoa milk, and hemp milk.
Why would people stop drinking cows’ milk and regular dairy?
There are a number of reasons why you might choose not to or not be able to drink regular dairy milk. Some people are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy products, who have no option but to switch to plant-based milks.
People who choose a vegan diet and lifestyle which doesn’t involve consuming or using any animal products will also opt for plant-based milks.
As knowledge of some mass-production practices and treatment of animals in the dairy industry becomes more accessible, many people find plant-based milk to be a more ethical choice.
But are they healthy for you? And which ones are better?
The lowdown on cow’s milk
Traditional dairy products are generally recommended as part of a healthy diet because they are nutritionally very good, providing energy, vitamins, and minerals, especially calcium and protein. They are also a good source of vitamin D, potassium and riboflavin.
Calcium is the main reason why experts recommend that you consume dairy, with few other sources being able to compare in terms of the quantity of this nutrient in food. Calcium is necessary to grow teeth and bones and keep them strong throughout your life. Calcium is also necessary for muscle contractions including heartbeat (kind of important) and well as blood flow.
While plant-based milks don’t contain as much calcium in their raw state as cow’s milk, most plant-based milks are calcium-fortified to provide much more benefits.
Full-fat cow’s milk products are quite high in fat, while there are low-fat options.
Many plant-based milks are high in sugar or have sugars added (as do some low-fat cow’s milk products) which improve the taste. You need to be careful about the amount of sugar that may be in your milk.
Nutrition-wise: what do we need?
Dairy products are the biggest sources of calcium and protein in the United States. This is a rough indication of how much of these nutrients you should be getting a day (for adults):
- Calcium – approximately 1000mg
- Protein – approximately 50-60g
The needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women are higher, as are the needs of teenagers and older women.
The Pros and Cons: which plant-based milks are better?
The most commonly known plant-based milk has been around for decades and with good reason why. Studies have shown that soy milk is the healthiest plant-based milk, which is rich in protein and has a high amount of calcium.
It is very good for a well-balanced diet.
Some people are put off by the taste of soy milk, and some people have a natural allergy to soy products, which can cancel this out as an option.
Almond milk tastes better than soy milk to most people, and is also lower in calories and sugar. When calcium-fortified, it provides one of the highest levels of calcium of plant-based milks.
It is not a good source of protein however and you should supplement your intake of any nut milk with extra protein.
Cashew milk has similar nutritional qualities to almond milk but with a slightly different taste, which some people prefer.
Coconut milk is less commonly used as a direct cow’s milk substitute, but makes a great alternative for cooking and baking purposes. It contains fewer proteins than ideal, and is also higher in saturated fats than other plant-based milks.
It has a very distinct taste and is not really suitable for coffee and cereal or for everyday use.
Low in calories, rice milk is often used as a substitute for people who can’t have animal milk, but may be allergic to soy and nut milk as well. It can be safe for babies and small children for this reason.
It is high in natural sugar however and should not on its own form part of a balanced diet. While it is safe, it does not provide enough protein and calcium, and if people rely on rice milk they can become malnourished.
Newish on the market, hemp milk is made by soaking hemp weeds in water. It is low in calories and sugar and is a reasonable source of protein. It is isn’t a common allergen, so is a good option for people allergic to soy and nuts.
The Takeaway on Milk
So are plant-based milks better? For many people who are unable to tolerate cow’s milk, or those who choose not to have it for ethical reasons it is a viable option and a healthy choice.
Whatever your milk choice, it is important that you read the nutritional information and ingredients on the label. Make sure that your plant-based milk choice isn’t higher in calories and saturated fat than is good for you (and if it is, keep it as a ‘sometimes food’). Make sure that it is calcium-fortified and if it not high in protein, ensure that you are getting enough protein from other sources.