Plant-based drinks are more and more popular worldwide among young people in general, vegans or those with milk protein allergies and lactose intolerance.
These milk substitutes are made from:
nuts: almond, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut,
stone fruit: coconut
seeds: hemp, flax, sesame
grains: oat, rice, corn
legumes: soy, peanut, lupin
pseudo-cereal: quinoa, teff
These products might resemble milk from the outside but from nutritional point of view they don't have much to do with cow’s milk, goat’s milk or mother’s milk. The traditional definition of milk is “whitish fluid, rich in fat and protein, secreted by mammary glands of female mammals for the nourishment of their young” (Dictionary; Van Winckel et al. 2011). None of the plant drinks meet the requirements of these criteria.
While many of us can't or don't want to drink cow's milk because of lactose intolerance, sensitivity to milk protein, or other reasons, it's a fact, that animal milk contains high amount of nutrients, such as bioavailable essential amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, such as Ca, Mg, Zn, Se, P, K; vitamins A, D, E, K, B2 and B12. The plant-based alternatives - unless they are fortified - are lacking most of these nutrients .
Let’s examine more closely a few non-dairy milk alternatives.
1. Rice milk
It contains almost exclusively carbohydrates (11 g sugar / portion) without any fat or protein, with very poor vitamin and mineral content and a very high glycemic index of 86 +/-7. Because rice doesn’t contain fat, canola or sunflower oils are added. Rice milk is very low in protein.
It usually contains many additives, like sugar or other sweeteners, carrageenan, added synthetic vitamins, minerals, artificial flavours, lecithin, etc. But even the most “pure” ones has at least highly refined seed oils added to them. On the top of that, rice milk might be extremely high in toxic arsenic.
2. Almond milk
It is very allergenic, with poor nutritional values. It is relatively high in carbohydrates and it has a high amount of toxic compounds, such as oxalates, phytic acid and digestive enzyme inhibitors. Almond milk is low in protein, and PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Scoring) values show that almond proteins are of poor nutritional quality.
The harmful additive carrageenan is often used as an additive.
3. Coconut milk
High in fat, 18 g/100 g, moderate in carbs, 7 g and and low (2 g) in protein. Coconut milk is probably the best choice when it comes to plant-based drinks, but it is still low in protein and other important nutrients. On the other hand, it is high in lauric acid, that has been shown to cause gut inflammation and in mouse models exacerbates multiple sclerosis (MS). I don't recommend coconut milk and other coconut products for people with intestinal inflammation, autoimmune disease and cancer.
4. Soy milk
It is relatively high in oxalate and very high in phytic acid. It can be extremely allergenic for some people. Soy protein inhibits iron and other mineral absorptions. Soy products may have negative health effects via estrogenic and goitrogenic activities.
Carrageenan and other additives are often added.
5. Oat milk
In one portion (250 ml) there are 16.8 g carbohydrates (10 g sugar!), 7.5 g fat (from sunflower or rapeseed oil) and 2.5 g protein. It is high in anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and lectins. Preservatives, sweeteners and other additives are often added.
What about sustainability?
Plant based milks are also popular today because they are advertised as sustainable. But is that true? Coconut farmers get payed less than a dollar a day and to answer the demand of “health-conscious“ rich people, locals cannot afford to eat coconuts themselves. In addition, the growing territory of plantations lead to destruction of rainforests.
Almond plantations require enormous amounts of water and killing large amounts of bees.
Rice needs a lot of water and fertilizers, the latter polluting drinking water in the plantation areas.
Soybean is grown in huge quantities as monoculture. A report by Mighty Earth, along with Rainforest Foundation Norway revealed soybean production are tied to deforestation and wide-spread fires.
In addition to the poor nutrient contents, my biggest concerns are the harmful additives these plant drinks contain.
Carrageenan is almost always added for a better structure. It has been shown to cause gut inflammation and potentially lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. Because of its cancer promoting effects, carrageenan should be excluded from everyone's diet.
Seeds oils, mostly canola are added to rice and oat milks, because those don't contain any fat naturally. These added oils are high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. Almond and other nut-drinks are naturally high in these fats.
Sugar or sweeteners are often added for a more pleasant taste.
In addition, all plant-based milk substitutes contain natural plant toxins, such as oxalates, lectins, phytic acid and digestive enzyme inhibitors, in a highly concentrated form.
To conclude, all the plant-based “milk” alternatives are highly processed products of the food industry. They are labeled and advertised as healthy alternatives to cow’s milk, but when we look the ingredients and examine the production processes, we realize that this is not the case. It is crucial for parents to know that replacing cow's milk with plant-based alternatives in their children's diet, will not provide the same amount of quality nutrients.
My advice for my clients is always to eat real, unprocessed whole-foods. Plant based drinks definitely do not belong to this category. Avoiding dairy is necessary for many people but replacing it with plant-based alternatives is not recommended.