If you’re ditching cow’s milk for almond, soy or coconut in your morning latte you’re not alone. But how do plant-based milks stack up nutritionally and are they a greener choice? We checked out 51 plant milks to find out.
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Cow’s milk is a good source of liquid nutrition – with protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium. The Ministry of Health’s (MoH) healthy eating guidelines recommend we consume 2 servings of milk or milk products every day.
But sales of milk alternatives are on the rise. Last year, we spent more than $52 million on almond, coconut, oat, rice and soy milk in supermarkets alone, an increase of $12 million in 2 years, according to Nielsen ScanTrack data. Almond and coconut milk sales have been the biggest movers, with sales increasing nearly 60%.
Whether you’re cutting out cow’s milk because of the taste, an allergy or intolerance, or for environmental reasons, here’s what you need to know.
If you’re ditching dairy, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough calcium and protein from other sources.
Registered dietitian Angela Berrill says “the low protein content of some milks, such as rice, coconut and almond, means they won’t fill you up as much as cow’s milk and you’ll need to get your protein from somewhere else for growth and development”.
For kids, the MoH recommends calcium- and vitamin B12-fortified soy milk if your child doesn’t drink cow’s milk (and isn’t allergic to soy) because, nutritionally, it’s the closest to cow’s milk.
Almond milk is soy-, lactose- and dairy- free so is 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.
But not all almond milk is created equal. The main ingredient in almond milk is water. Actual almond content varies by brand. Three of the brands in our survey (Blue Diamond Almond Breeze, Pams and Sanitarium So Good) only contain 2.5% almonds (in comparison, homemade almond milk contains about 18%).
Nutty Bruce and Pureharvest almond milks are made with “activated almonds”. These have been soaked in water for 12 hours to supposedly improve the digestibility and nutrition of the nut. But there’s no evidence activated nuts are better for you. A 2017 University of Otago study, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, concluded soaking nuts doesn’t improve their digestibility or availability of nutrients.
Only 4 almond milks had calcium levels comparable to cow’s milk (about 120mg per 100ml).
Nine of the 19 products had added sweeteners. We found rice syrup, cane syrup, sugar and agave syrup in the ingredients list. Sanitarium So Good Almond Milk Original had the most sugar – about 2 teaspoons in a 250ml glass. Most brands have an unsweetened almond milk option.
We also found almond milk with brown rice, sunflower oil, salt, vegetable gums and flavours. Check the ingredients list for these added extras.
Soy milk is made from whole soybeans or soy protein. It’s the most comparable milk alternative nutritionally to cow’s milk. Its protein levels are similar and regular soy milk (not low fat) has a similar fat content. This means it’s suitable for kids under 2 who can tolerate it (it’s also a common food allergen).
Most soy milks are fortified with calcium, but watch out for sweetened varieties – 14 soy milks in our survey had added sugars. Pureharvest Organic Nature’s Soy Enriched was the sweetest – it had 2-and-a-half teaspoons in a 250ml glass.
Soy isn’t without controversy. Soy milk contains isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen, and studies have raised concerns about its role as a potential hormone disruptor, particularly its effects on postmenopausal women. However, a 2015 review by the European Food Safety Authority didn’t find evidence of adverse health effects.
Coconut, oat and rice milks are lower in protein compared to the other milks we looked at. “Coconut milk is also higher in saturated fat than other alternatives and some products aren’t fortified with calcium,” Ms Berrill says.
Oat milks have the benefit of beta-glucan – a soluble fibre that can help lower cholesterol.
None of the oat or rice milks in our survey had added sweeteners – the sugar content in oat milks is naturally occurring. But we found tapioca syrup, rice syrup and sugar lurking in some coconut milks.
Vitasoy coconut and oat milks, and most of the rice milks in our survey were fortified with calcium.
From the quantities of water needed to feed the cows and wash down sheds and equipment, the methane gas the cows produce, and the effect on our waterways, the dairy industry has been in the firing line for its negative impact on the environment. Are the alternatives any better?
When it comes to making a sustainable choice you need to consider the water footprint (how much water is used), carbon footprint (what greenhouse gases are emitted) and how the main ingredient is farmed, as well as where it’s grown.
There’s limited research comparing the environmental impacts of plant milks and dairy milk. But available studies point to plant-based drinks being a greener choice.
A 2012 Dutch study published in Ecological Indicators calculated the water footprint of soy milk versus cow’s milk. It concluded cow’s milk had a much larger water footprint than soy milk – it took 1050L of water to produce a litre of milk, versus 297L to produce a litre of soy milk.
Another European study, published in Food & Nutrition Research in 2010, found cow’s milk had more than 3 times the greenhouse gas emissions of soy milk and 5 times the emissions of oat milk.
New Zealand doesn’t grow any plant milk crops, so it’s difficult to directly compare their sustainability with local cow’s milk. However, where each milk’s crop comes from is something to consider.
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.
Not all products show the source of the almonds. Blue Diamond Almond Breeze packaging says the milk is “blended and packed in Australia” but the company’s website states it uses Californian almonds. Pacific Organic and Pams also use Californian almonds. Eight other products were made from Australian almonds. Australia’s Own uses Australian or Spanish almonds, depending on availability.
Some soy milks, such as Macro Organic and Vitasoy, state on the packaging they’re made from Australian-grown soy. Other brands use soybeans from China or Japan.
According to the CSIRO (an Australian research organisation), if soy milk is made from whole soybeans they’re probably Australian-grown. If the milk is made from soy protein or protein isolate, it’s likely to be imported from somwhere else. You can usually find this information in the ingredients list.
Having country of origin labelling for plant-based milks would help consumers weigh up the environmental impact of their morning pour. We’ve been campaigning for mandatory country of origin labelling for years as consumers have the right to know where their food comes from.
|Milks||Price ($)||Ingredient (%)||Protein (g)||Sugar (g)||Calcium (mg)||Sweetener||Origin of characterising ingredient|
|Nutty Bruce Organic Activated Almond Milk||6.50||10A||<1.0||2||ns||Brown rice syrup||ns|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Activated Almond Milk Original||4.49||10A||0.3||2.4||ns||Rice syrup||ns|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Activated Almond Milk Unsweetened Original||4.49||7A||0.65||1.1||ns||No added sugar||ns|
|Almo Almond Milk Unsweetened||10.98||5.0||1.2||0.2||98||No added sugar||Australia|
|Covet Almond Milk Unsweetened||6.99||5.0||1.3||0.2||53||No added sugar||Australia|
|Macro Organic Almond Milk Unsweetened||3.50||5.0||0.7||1||80||No added sugar||Australia|
|Macro Organic Almond Milk||3.50||4.0||0.4||1.9||68||Rice syrup, sugar||Australia|
|Pacific Organic Almond Non-Dairy Beverage Original||8.98||4.0||0.4||3.3||ns||Dried cane syrup||USA (California)|
|Pacific Organic Almond Non-Dairy Beverage Original Unsweetened||8.98||4.0||0.4||0||ns||No added sugar||USA (California)|
|Vitasoy Almond Milky||4.99||3.8||0.7||1.5||120||Raw sugar||Australia|
|Vitasoy Almond Milk Unsweetened||4.99||3.8||0.7||0.1||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Australia's Own Organic Almond Milk||6.35||3.0||0.6||1.9||ns||Agave syrup||Australia/Spain|
|Australia's Own Organic Almond Milk Unsweetened||6.35||3.0||0.6||0.1||ns||No added sugar||Australia/Spain|
|Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Almond Milk Original||3.59||2.5||0.4||2.8||80||Raw sugar||USA (California)|
|Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Almond Milk Unsweetened||3.59||2.5||0.5||0.1||80||No added sugar||USA (California)|
|Pams Almond Milk Original||2.99||2.5||0.5||2.3||71||Sugar||USA (California)|
|Pams Almond Milk Unsweetened||2.99||2.5||0.5||0.2||71||No added sugar||USA (California)|
|Sanitarium So Good Almond Milk Original||4.29||2.5||0.6||3.4||120||Cane sugar||Australia|
|Sanitarium So Good Almond Milk Unsweetened||4.29||2.5||0.6||0.1||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Sanitarium So Good Coconut Milk Unsweetened||4.29||9.0B||0.2||0.3||75||No added sugar||Phillippines|
|Pureharvest Organic Coco Quench Coconut Milk||4.79||20.0C||0.6||3.8||ns||No added sugar||ns|
|Little Island Coconut Creamery Coconut Milk Beverage||6.00||15.0B||0.5||1.4||ns||Tapioca syrup||Sri Lanka|
|Cocomi Bioorganic Coconut Milk Drink||5.98||9.0C||1.5||0.5||ns||Rice syrup||Sri Lanka|
|Vitasoy Coconut Milky||4.99||8.0B||0.2||2.3||120||Raw sugar||ns|
|Vitasoy Coconut Milk Unsweetened||4.99||8.0B||0.2||0.2||120||No added sugar||ns|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Oat Milk Unsweetened Original||4.90||15.0||2.1||3.7||ns||No added sugar||ns|
|Vitasoy Oat Milk Bone Essentials||4.19||15.0||1.0||1.5||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Vitasoy Oat Milk Unsweetened||4.19||15.0||1.0||1.8||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Rice Dream Organic Rice Drink Original Enriched||5.59||40.0||0.4||4.2||125||No added sugar||USA|
|Macro Organic Rice Milk||2.50||15.0||0.8||3.7||110||No added sugar||ns|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Aussie Dream Rice Milk Unsweetened Original with Calcium||4.90||15.0||0.6||2.8||110||No added sugar||ns|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Aussie Dream Rice Milk Unsweetened Original||4.90||14.0||0.4||5.8||1||No added sugar||ns|
|Vitasoy Rice Milk Unsweetened||4.19||13.0||0.3||5.8||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Australia's Own Organic Rice Milk||2.99||10.0D||0.6||4.2||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Freedom Foods Rice Milk||2.59||10.0D||0.3||3||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Vitasoy Soy Milk Unsweetened Protein Plus||3.99||21.0||4.2||0.5||120||No added sugar||Australia|
|Macro Organic Soy Milk||2.50||17.0||3.3||2.4||120||Sugar, rice syrup||Australia|
|Vitasoy Soy Milk Original||3.99||17.0||3.3||2.3||120||Raw sugar||Australia|
|Vitasoy Soy Milk Calci-Plus||3.99||15.0||3.2||2.8||160||Raw sugar||Australia|
|Bonsoy Soy Drink||6.50||14.0||4.1||2.2||25||Tapioca syrup||Japan|
|Pure Harvest It's Organic Nature's Soy Milk Low Fat Lite||4.90||14.0||3.0||1.8||110||Rice syrup||ns|
|Vitasoy Soy Milky Lite||3.79||14.0||3.0||2.1||120||Raw sugar||Australia|
|Vitasoy Soy Milky Regular||3.79||14.0||3.0||2.1||120||Raw sugar||Australia|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Nature's Soy Milk Enriched||4.90||13.0||3.0||4.0||110||Rice syrup||ns|
|Pureharvest It's Organic Nature's Soy Milk Original||4.90||13.0||2.5||2.4||ns||Rice syrup||ns|
|Australia's Own Organic Soy Milk Unsweetened||2.99||5.3||1.9||0.4||ns||No added sugar||Australia|
|Pams Soy Milk Lite||2.79||3.5E||3.3||1.9||120||Sugar||China|
|Pams Soy Milk Regular||2.79||3.5E||3.3||1.9||120||Sugar||China|
|Sanitarium So Good Soy Milk Essential||3.29||3.5E||3.3||2.2||160||Cane sugar||China|
|Sanitarium So Good Soy Milk Lite||3.29||3.5E||3.4||2.0||120||Cane sugar||China|
|Sanitarium So Good Soy Milk Regular||3.29||3.5E||3.2||2.0||160||Cane sugar||China|
|Standard (blue-top)||2.80||n/a||3.9||4.7||135||No added sugar||New Zealand|
|Lite (light-blue top)||2.80||n/a||4.0||4.8||135||No added sugar||New Zealand|
GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRODUCTS are listed by ingredient percentage within groups. PRICE is per litre and based on an online and store survey in March 2018. INGREDIENT Aactivated almonds. Bcoconut cream. Ccoconut milk. Drice flour. Esoy protein. n/a = not applicable. NUTRITION (per 100g) is from label or website information. Calcium ns = not stated. ORIGIN OF CHARACTERISING INGREDIENT is from label or company information. ns = not stated or provided.
Most plant milks are made the same way. The soybeans, almonds, rice or oats are ground and then blended with water and other ingredients (such as added sweeteners, vitamins and minerals). Some manufacturers soak the almonds before they’re ground. For coconut milk drinks, coconut cream or milk is blended with water and other ingredients.
By Belinda Castles
Research and Testing Writer
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