This piece was written by one of our contributors; Registered Associate Nutritionist – Kimberley Neve.
Plant-based ‘milks’ have become extremely popular recently, with a vast selection available: soy, rice, hemp, hazelnut, oat, almond, coconut and pea – to name just a few. Approximately 30% of UK households reportedly buy plant-based milks (1). For some, it is part of following a more plant-based diet for sustainability (although these milks are not without their own environmental concerns); for others, it is due to health concerns, such as lactose or dairy intolerance, or a belief that they are a healthier alternative to cow’s milk.
An important question is whether plant-based milks are healthier than cow’s milk, and if so, which ones are best?
Is cow’s milk unhealthy?
Firstly, cow’s milk is not unhealthy, if you can tolerate it. Cow’s milk is packed with beneficial nutrients, including calcium, vitamin B12, iodine, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B2, protein and fat. Although dairy contains saturated fat, it appears to be absorbed and utilised in a different way to the saturated fat in other foods and therefore does not have the same negative health effects that we often attribute to saturated fat (2). There is strong evidence to show that dairy does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (3,4) which is associated with high intake of saturated fatty acids, and some dairy products are even associated with a decreased risk (5,6).
Are plant-based milks healthy?
There is the assumption that plant-based milks are healthier than dairy milk, however, apart from soy products, there has not been enough research into the plant-based alternatives to be able to determine their potential health benefits (7). Depending on fortification (the nutrients manufacturers add to the product that are not normally there), non-dairy milks can be low in key nutrients like calcium and iodine and high in added sugars.
As a result, if you are replacing cow’s milk with a plant-based alternative, it is a good idea to check the nutrient profiles to see how they match up. Confusingly, the vitamin and mineral contents for plant-based milks are not standardised and vary not only between types, but also between brands.
Which plant-based milk is best?
This depends on what we mean by ‘best’! Taste or consistency may dictate which option is best, depending on whether you are using the milk in cooking, baking or hot drinks.
Generally speaking, the plant-based milks with the closest nutritional profile to cow’s milk are soya or pea milk. In particular, these are the best choice if you’re looking to match the protein levels in dairy, as they usually contain around 3.3g of protein per 100ml, in comparison to 3.5g per 100ml in whole cow’s milk. Be aware that nut milks tend to have low levels of protein, despite nuts being a good source of protein otherwise. For example, almond milk usually contains less than 1g per 100ml.
Some milks can also be quite high in sugar, for example rice and coconut milk, so the unsweetened versions would be a healthier alternative if you still enjoy the taste. Coconut milk usually contains more saturated fat than other plant-based types – about 2g per 100ml. Although cow’s milk contains comparable amounts of saturated fat, as mentioned above, saturated fats in dairy have not been shown to have negative effects on cardiovascular health.
In any plant-based milk you buy, the main nutrients to look out for are calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine. Iodine is particularly important for supporting thyroid function and metabolism; however, as it is not found in many foods, it can be difficult to get enough in our diets. Cow’s milk is usually our main source of iodine, which is why it is an important nutrient in plant-based milks. Alternative milk companies seem to be including it in more and more of their products, which is great news, but you should have a look at the ingredients to check.
- Organic is not always better
Organic plant alternatives are not fortified at all, as manufacturers are not legally allowed to add any vitamins and minerals in.
- Shake your carton!
Fortified nutrients can sink to the bottom, so make sure you shake them back into your drink before throwing the carton away.
with tastes and your own preference, and ensure you get all the nutrients you need either from the milk you choose, or in other foods you eat.