What to consider if you’re ditching dairy or going meat-free.
Cow’s milk is the benchmark for liquid nutrition – per 100ml whole milk has approximately 3.3g of protein and 120mg of calcium. It also contains vitamin B12 and vitamin D. So, if you’re ditching it, you’ll want to make sure you get enough protein and calcium from other sources. But not all plant-based alternatives are created equal.
If you can’t live without cheese, your options are either oil-based (usually coconut oil) combined with a starch, such as potato or maize, or nut-based. Oil-based cheeses tend to have lengthy ingredient lists compared with dairy cheese (which contains just milk, salt cultures and enzymes).
Like dairy cheese, most oil and nut products are high in saturated fat and sodium. Nut cheeses have comparable protein to dairy but oil-based ones are low in this nutrient. You won’t find calcium in the oil-based products.
Made from whole soybeans or soy protein, soy milk is the most comparable milk alternative nutritionally to cow’s milk. Its protein levels are similar and regular soy milk has a similar fat content. That means it’s suitable for kids under two who can tolerate it (it’s also a common food allergen).
Most soy milks are fortified with calcium but watch out for sweetened varieties.
Almond milk is soy-, lactose- and dairy-free so suitable for people with soy and milk allergies, as well as vegans. It also contains the heart-healthy fats found in olive oil and is low in saturated fat.
The main ingredient in almond milk is water but almond content varies by brand.
Tip: Check the ingredients list for almond content. Sanitarium, So Good, Pams and Blue Diamond = 2.5 percent almonds. Pure Harvest = 7%. Nutty Bruce= 10 percent.
Most almond milks don’t have comparable calcium or protein levels to cow’s milk and many also have added sweeteners. In our plant milks survey, we found rice syrup, cane syrup, sugar and agave syrup. Most brands have an unsweetened almond milk option, which is a healthier choice.
Coconut, hemp, oat and rice milk
These milks are lower in protein compared to other plant milks. Coconut milk is also higher in saturated fats and not all are fortified with calcium. Some brands of coconut milk also contain added sugar.
Oat milks have the benefit of beta-glucan – a soluble fibre that can help lower cholesterol.
New kids on the block
Peanut milk is a relatively new player in the plant milk market. Nut Brothers Peanut Milk with 8 percent peanuts has 2 percent protein and is fortified with calcium.
If overseas trends are to go by, we can also expect to see pea milk and potato milk hitting our shop shelves.
A 2021 review published in the journal Sustainability analysed data from 21 studies about the differences between plant-based dairy alternatives when it comes to greenhouse gases, water, energy and land use, as well as eutrophicating and ozone-depleting substances. It found, compared with dairy, plant-based alternatives have lower or much lower impacts.
The exception was water use for almond milks. The majority of the world’s almonds are grown in California, a drought-prone area. It’s claimed almond production and its water use are having an impact on the region.
When it comes to country-of-origin, not all products are upfront about the source of their protein. Having country-of-origin labelling for plant-based milk would help consumers make an informed choice.
There’s an increasing number of options if you’re trying to reduce your meat intake.
From plant-based “meat” products claiming to be like the real thing, to traditional alternatives like tofu, falafel and vegetarian sausages. Pricier than their meat-based opponents, how do they stack up in the nutrition stakes?
Meat lookalikes claim to cook and taste like the real thing, while letting you feel great about the sustainability and animal welfare benefits of choosing plant proteins.
Made with plant proteins such as pea, soy, and oats, these products have a smaller carbon footprint than animal products, even if the crop has been transported to New Zealand. They’re also a convenient option if you don’t have time, knowledge or the inclination to cook plant-based meals from scratch.
Some products also promote their iron and zinc content, but the iron in these products is different from that found in meat. Meat, chicken and fish contain haem iron, which is better absorbed by the body. Plant foods contain non-haem iron, which is not absorbed as well, so you need to eat larger quantities.
In 2020, independent think tank Food Frontier, carried out a nutritional analysis of conventional processed meats like sausages and burgers compared with plant-based meat alternatives available in Australia and New Zealand. The review found that across most categories plant-based alternatives have, on average, lower or comparable kilojoules and sodium, higher or comparable protein, and lower fat and saturated fat per 100g. Some products also have the bonus of dietary fibre.
Leanne Young, public health dietitian and researcher at the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, said it’s important to be aware that some of these plant-based products are still ultra-processed with lengthy ingredients lists. They’re not the same as whole plant foods we should be eating more of, like legumes.
There’s also a cost to their convenience. A yet-to-be published New Zealand study compared the nutrient content, cost and nutrient claims of canned and dried legumes versus plant-based meat alternatives. It found, compared with legumes, meat look-a-likes tended to be higher in energy, total fat and sodium, but tended to have higher protein and similar fibre content. Plain tofu and falafel were the cheapest meat-free options.
Ms Young, the study’s lead author, said although meat alternatives give choice and convenience, they tend to be less nutritious (although still provide good amounts of protein) and more expensive than traditional plant protein options. She encourages comparing the sodium, energy, fat and saturated fat content on food labels.
Top tip: In recipes like chilli con carne, start by replacing some of the meat with canned legumes. Over time, you’ll be able to ditch the meat altogether.