Assortment of plant milks

Plant milks

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.

Ditching dairy

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

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

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 milk

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.

Environmental impact

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.

Available studies point to plant-based drinks being a greener choice.
Available studies point to plant-based drinks being a greener choice.

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.

Products compared

MilksPrice ($)Ingredient (%)Protein (g)Sugar (g)Calcium (mg)SweetenerOrigin of characterising ingredient
Almond milk
Nutty Bruce Organic Activated Almond Milk6.5010A<1.02nsBrown rice syrupns
Pureharvest It's Organic Activated Almond Milk Original4.4910A0.32.4nsRice syrupns
Pureharvest It's Organic Activated Almond Milk Unsweetened Original4.497A 0.651.1nsNo added sugarns
Almo Almond Milk Unsweetened10.985.01.20.298No added sugarAustralia
Covet Almond Milk Unsweetened6.995.01.30.253No added sugarAustralia
Macro Organic Almond Milk Unsweetened3.505.00.7180No added sugarAustralia
Macro Organic Almond Milk3.504.00.41.968Rice syrup, sugarAustralia
Pacific Organic Almond Non-Dairy Beverage Original8.984.00.43.3nsDried cane syrupUSA (California)
Pacific Organic Almond Non-Dairy Beverage Original Unsweetened8.984.00.40nsNo added sugarUSA (California)
Vitasoy Almond Milky4.993.80.71.5120Raw sugarAustralia
Vitasoy Almond Milk Unsweetened4.993.80.70.1120No added sugarAustralia
Australia's Own Organic Almond Milk6.353.00.61.9nsAgave syrupAustralia/Spain
Australia's Own Organic Almond Milk Unsweetened6.353.00.60.1nsNo added sugarAustralia/Spain
Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Almond Milk Original 3.592.50.42.880Raw sugarUSA (California)
Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Almond Milk Unsweetened3.592.50.50.180No added sugarUSA (California)
Pams Almond Milk Original2.992.50.52.371SugarUSA (California)
Pams Almond Milk Unsweetened2.992.50.50.271No added sugarUSA (California)
Sanitarium So Good Almond Milk Original4. sugarAustralia
Sanitarium So Good Almond Milk Unsweetened4. added sugarAustralia
Coconut milk
Sanitarium So Good Coconut Milk Unsweetened4.299.0B0.20.375No added sugarPhillippines
Pureharvest Organic Coco Quench Coconut Milk4.7920.0C0.63.8nsNo added sugarns
Little Island Coconut Creamery Coconut Milk Beverage6.0015.0B0.51.4nsTapioca syrupSri Lanka
Cocomi Bioorganic Coconut Milk Drink5.989.0C1.50.5nsRice syrupSri Lanka
Vitasoy Coconut Milky4.998.0B0.22.3120Raw sugarns
Vitasoy Coconut Milk Unsweetened4.998.0B0.20.2120No added sugarns
Oat milk
Pureharvest It's Organic Oat Milk Unsweetened Original4.9015.02.13.7nsNo added sugarns
Vitasoy Oat Milk Bone Essentials4.1915.01.01.5120No added sugarAustralia
Vitasoy Oat Milk Unsweetened4.1915.01.01.8120No added sugarAustralia
Rice milk
Rice Dream Organic Rice Drink Original Enriched5.5940.00.44.2125No added sugarUSA
Macro Organic Rice Milk2.5015.00.83.7110No added sugarns
Pureharvest It's Organic Aussie Dream Rice Milk Unsweetened Original with Calcium4.9015.00.62.8110No added sugarns
Pureharvest It's Organic Aussie Dream Rice Milk Unsweetened Original 4.9014.00.45.81No added sugarns
Vitasoy Rice Milk Unsweetened4.1913.00.35.8120No added sugarAustralia
Australia's Own Organic Rice Milk2.9910.0D0.64.2120No added sugarAustralia
Freedom Foods Rice Milk2.5910.0D0.33120No added sugarAustralia
Soy milk
Vitasoy Soy Milk Unsweetened Protein Plus3.9921.04.20.5120No added sugarAustralia
Macro Organic Soy Milk2.5017.03.32.4120Sugar, rice syrupAustralia
Vitasoy Soy Milk Original3.9917.03.32.3120Raw sugarAustralia
Vitasoy Soy Milk Calci-Plus3.9915.03.22.8160Raw sugarAustralia
Bonsoy Soy Drink6.5014.04.12.225Tapioca syrupJapan
Pure Harvest It's Organic Nature's Soy Milk Low Fat Lite4.9014.03.01.8110Rice syrupns
Vitasoy Soy Milky Lite3.7914.03.02.1120Raw sugarAustralia
Vitasoy Soy Milky Regular3.7914.03.02.1120Raw sugarAustralia
Pureharvest It's Organic Nature's Soy Milk Enriched4.9013.03.04.0110Rice syrup ns
Pureharvest It's Organic Nature's Soy Milk Original4.9013.02.52.4nsRice syrupns
Australia's Own Organic Soy Milk Unsweetened2.995.31.90.4nsNo added sugarAustralia
Pams Soy Milk Lite2.793.5E3.31.9120Sugar China
Pams Soy Milk Regular2.793.5E3.31.9120Sugar China
Sanitarium So Good Soy Milk Essential3.293.5E3.32.2160Cane sugar China
Sanitarium So Good Soy Milk Lite3.293.5E3.42.0120Cane sugarChina
Sanitarium So Good Soy Milk Regular3.293.5E3.22.0160Cane sugarChina
Cow's milk
Standard (blue-top)2.80n/a3.94.7135No added sugarNew Zealand
Lite (light-blue top)2.80n/a4.04.8135No added sugarNew 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.

How are plant milks made?

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