Whether you’re trying to improve your diet or you want to live more sustainably, chances are you’ve thought about plant milks. Here’s how the most popular compare
Time was when the lactose-intolerant couldn’t find a substitute to cow’s milk in a local supermarket. Thankfully, the dairy aisles have expanded considerably in recent years, with a broad range of choices for picky eaters and planetary evangelists alike.
Global demand for dairy alternatives will more than double from $23.2 billion this year to $52.58 billion by 2028, according to forecasts by Grand View Research. The industry is growing at 12.5 per cent annually, the research shows, because the occurrence of milk allergies and lactose intolerance is on the rise and because of environmental or moral concerns are prompting the mass adoption of vegan and plant-forward diets.
From peas and oats to almonds, “milk” is now being made from a number of non-traditional ingredients. Indeed, developments in food technology and processing mean that the new generation of dairy alternatives deliver both on taste and health. Not only is the gritty texture of some alternative milks is now a thing of the past, but those going dairy-free can now find options that fit into eating plans such as keto, paleo or low-FODMAP.
But with such a wide variety of options on the market, what should you be choosing? To prevent you from coming down with a serious case of analysis paralysis, GN Focus compared some of the most popular milks on the market by health and environmental concerns. As with all beverages, production methods can affect nutritional values, so read the labels before buying.
The default milk replacement drink of choice for most thanks to the ease with which it pairs with coffee, a standard cup of unsweetened almond milk clocks between 30 and 60 calories. Compare that with 124 calories for a cup of low-fat (2%) milk and 148 calories for whole milk. It only offers 1g of protein vs 8g in milk, and must be fortified with nutrients such as calcium and vitamins A and D.
At 0.42 kilos, almond milk’s global warming potential — the kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk — is a third that of cow’s milk, which varies between 1.14 and 2.5 according to where it is produced.
However, almond milk is still fairly water intensive, with a single almond requiring 12 litres of water in drought-prone California, which accounts for close to 80% of the world’s produce, say researchers from Curtin University in Perth. Additionally, the pesticides used to farm almonds in the US are deadly for the bees that pollinate the crops, so consider where the almond milk you’re buying is produced.
Every litre of cow’s milk, on the other hand, requires 628 litres of water (as compared to 371 litres per litre of almond milk), while also requiring at least nine times’ more land.
Finally, it goes without saying that almond milk shouldn’t be on your shopping list if you have a nut allergy.
The main reason many people choose – or eschew – coconut milk is its taste. Rich and creamy but unmistakeably nutty, this is a divisive beverage. Nutritionally, it ranks alongside whole milk, with about half the number of calories and similar amounts of saturated fats (about 5g per cup each). While coconut milk is rich in minerals such as manganese, copper and magnesium, it provides negligible amounts of protein and only has about 2g of carbs, making it a keto favourite. Watch those calories, though: a cup of coconut milk has 552 calories compared to 149 in a cup of whole cow’s milk.
From an ecological perspective, coconut milk fares better with trees’ relatively low water needs. However, there are other ethical issues associated with the farming of coconuts, which only grow in tropical areas. Thanks to spiralling demand in recent years, reports of worker exploitation and rainforest destruction abound, so make sure to choose Fair Trade-certified products.
With 80 calories, 7g of protein and nearly 90% less saturated fat than whole milk, soy milk holds its own against cow’s milk, particularly if it is enriched with additional nutrients such as calcium and vitamins A and D. Additionally, soy protein is considered a complete protein, since it contains all nine essential amino acids that the human body cannot make and must obtain from dietary sources. With 4g each of carbs and fat, soy milk is a natural source of potassium. While there are concerns about oestrogen-mimicking compounds called isoflavones, researchers have yet to make any definitive pronouncements about exactly how much soy milk can trigger an oestrogen-like response. In short, it’s probably okay in small amounts – but skip right past if you’re allergic to soy.
Although the jury’s out on the taste of soy milk, it certainly ticks several of the right environmental boxes. It’s global warming potential is half that of cow’s milk, while one litre of soy milk requires only 28 litres of water. There are concerns about the deforestation for soybean growth, but a lot of this has to do with the beans being used as livestock feed.
Thick and creamy, oat milk clocks in at 130 calories per cup (as compared to 148 for whole milk). Although low in saturated fat (0.5g) with 2g of fibre and 4g of protein, it is nevertheless fairly carby, at least in keto terms, with 15g per cup.
Each litre of oat milk requires about 48 litres of water. By some estimates oat milk produces 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and uses 60% less energy than cow’s milk, but the use of pesticides such as glyphosate can be a problem on non-organic farms. Finally, if you’re gluten-intolerant, you might have a hard time finding the right oat milk.