By: Beatriz Carmona, Dietetics student at Auburn University
Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD
It seems like there is a new dairy-free alternative on grocery store shelves or in advertisements every day; grains, nuts, and even legumes are being used to create “milk” that can replace standard dairy milk. Because plant-based milks vary greatly in ingredients, they cannot be considered nutritional substitutes for dairy milk. Regardless, many can benefit from expanding their options outside of cow’s milk, and there are many reasons to try plant-based milk. These are just a few:
- Easier digestibility:
Lactose, a sugar found in animal milk, may not be easily digested, as 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant. Plant based milks are naturally lactose-free, meaning less gastrointestinal complications for many. Animal milk also has a number of proteins that can cause allergies; in fact, the most common food allergy in infants and young children is cow’s milk. While not all plant-based milks are guaranteed to be hypoallergenic, some such as oat, rice, and hemp milks are great alternatives to those who struggle with protein allergies.
- More sustainable production:
It takes around 9 square meters of land to produce 1 liter of cow’s milk, while 1 liter of oat milk, soy milk, and rice milk only need 2.6, 0.7, and 0.37 square meters for production, respectively. More land use means more resources, which makes these 3 plant-based milks (oat, soy, and rice) more sustainable regarding water use.
- Variety in tastes:
From almond to coconut and even macadamia nut, plant-based milks have a variety of unique flavors that can please a crowd and lend a new layer of complexity to recipes.
Choosing The Right Milk For You
It can be overwhelming sometimes to venture into the world of plant milks, but if you keep a few things in mind, you can be sure that you’re getting a nutritious alternative to dairy milk.
Match the nutrients:
The USDA MyPlate guidelines recommend 2-3 servings of dairy a day, mainly for its high calcium, vitamin D (supplemented), and protein content. Because the former two are difficult to find in other foods outside of some green leafy vegetables and selected others, it’s important to find plant-based milk that contains comparable amounts of all 3. More often than not, these nutrients will be added through fortification and are still well absorbed and used by the body. Because every brand is different in the amount of vitamins and minerals, it would be difficult to rank them through this alone, but it’s good to know which nutrients to look out for.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 700 mg for children aged 1-3, 1,000 mg for young children and adults, 1,200 mg for elderly, and 1,300 mg for older children and teens.
The RDA is 15 mcg for anyone aged 1-70, and 20 mcg for those older than 71.
There is no RDA, but the general recommendation is 0.8 grams/ kg of body weight. Because protein is not generally deficient in the standard American diet, this is not a super important consideration. If you are excluding all animal products from your diet, however (such as in vegetarianism or veganism), try to aim for a plant milk that provides protein on the high side of the spectrum for these products.
Just as there’s a wide variety of plant milk types, they can also vary in their ingredients (such as added sugar, oils, or binding agents). Unsweetened versions with minimal ingredients are ideal, but you should be able to find which variation best suits your needs by understanding what different ingredients mean.
Added sugars: Cane sugar, honey, evaporated cane juice, maltodextrin
- The American Heart Association recommends that men and women should aim for less than 6 teaspoons and 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day, respectively, for overall health. Just 2 servings of some of these milks can exceed this limit, so aim for lower sugar options.
Added oils: Sunflower, canola, palm oils
- Some gastrointestinal concerns exist regarding this compound, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest considers this a cautionary ingredient that consumers should try their best to avoid.
Generally desirable ingredients:
- Vitamin fortification: vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin A (palmitate), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin E (D-alpha tocopherol)
- Mineral fortification: calcium (calcium carbonate/ tricalcium phosphate), phosphorous, magnesium, potassium (dipotassium phosphate)
Find what fits your needs:
Aside from the above added ingredients, plant milks have different nutritional contents inherently. You’ll want to make your choice in the context of your diet; for example, soy and almond are some of the most popular types, but differ drastically in their nutrient content (with soy having quite a bit more protein). They may also differ in terms of which vitamins and minerals are added to them. Both can be decent choices depending on what you are looking for in the milk and the variety you choose. Here’s some info on what’s in a cup of different types of milk:
- High-protein milks: Soy (6 g), Pea (8 g), and Flax Seed (8 g)
- Low-calorie milks: Cashew (25 cals), Coconut (31 cals), and Almond (40 cals)
- Allergen-free: Rice, Oat, Hemp, Pea, Flax Seed, Coconut
Nutrition for a 1 cup (8 fl oz or 245 mL) serving from USDA Food Data Central
*Specialty item, not found in regular grocery stores stores
Making Your Own
Believe it or not, most plant-based milks are fairly easy to recreate at home (with the exceptions of soy, pea, coconut, and flax; these require a little more processing and hydrolyzing). This basic recipe allows you to experiment with various ingredients to find which you prefer.
Base: Oat, Rice, Cashew, Almond, or any other nut you prefer:
- Soak 1 cup of base ingredient in water
- If using nuts (whole): soak 4 hours, then rinse
- If using uncooked rice: soak 2 hours
- No soaking is required for quick or rolled oats
- Blend base with 4 cups water, a pinch of salt until smooth
- Add 1 tbsp honey and/or 1 tsp vanilla extract for a hint of sweetness
- Optional: experiment with flavors, such as ½ tsp cinnamon or coconut extract!
- Line a large jar or bowl with cheesecloth and strain, then squeeze out all of the remaining liquid until dry pulp is left. This may take 5-10 minutes.
- Store in an air-tight jar for up to 4 days. It may settle, since the particles are not stabilized with any artificial ingredients. To serve, shake up the container to re-homogenize the product.