Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Plant-based drinks are more and more popular nowadays and they are here to replace cow's milk. 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 processed products might resemble milk from the outside but from nutritional point of view they have nothing 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.
Humans, as well as other animals, do not need milk after infancy. Actually, humans are the only animals that drink the milk from other species. After breast-feeding when babies are able to eat solid food, they do not need milk anymore. If they do not need milk, they do not need milk substitutes either.
Plant-based milk alternatives might potentially be much worse than cow’s milk and can cause more damage to our bodies because of the toxic components they contain.
It is hard to imagine a more processed food than packaged, milk substitutes that are usually full of different kinds of additives. In addition, they contain natural plant toxins in a highly concentrated form, such as oxalates, lectins, phytates and digestive enzyme inhibitors. Carrageenan, that is often added to these products, has been shown to cause gut inflammation and potentially lead to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Furthermore, because naturally they don’t contain fat (except for coconut milk and nut milks), different plant oils are added to them, which themselves are unhealthy processed foods.
Let’s examine more closely a few non-dairy alternatives.
1. Rice milk
It contains almost exclusively carbohydrates (11 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 vegetable 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 oxalic acid, phytates 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 (coconut oil) is very high in lauric acid, that has been shown to cause gut inflammation and in mouse models exacerbates multiple sclerosis (MS) and possibly aggravates other autoimmune conditions as well.
4. Soy milk
It is relatively high in oxalate and very high in phytates. It can be extremely allergenic for some people. Soy protein inhibits iron and other mineral absorptions. Carrageenan and other additives are often added.
5. Oat milk
In one portion (2.5 dl) 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 popular today partly 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 it 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.
To conclude, all of 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 into their ingredients and the production processes, we see that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
My advice to my clients is always to eat real, unprocessed whole-foods. Plant based drinks definitely do not belong to this category. Avoiding dairy is a good idea but avoiding the plant- based alternatives is even more recommended.