How do plant-based milks stack up nutritionally and are they a greener choice? We checked out 71 plant milks to find out.
If you’re ditching cow’s milk, there are plenty of plant-based alternatives.
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.
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. Some brands only contain 2.4% 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 some almond milks had calcium levels comparable to cow’s milk (about 120mg per 100ml).
Many almond milks contain added sweeteners. We found rice syrup, cane syrup, sugar, fructose and agave syrup in the ingredients list. Most brands have an unsweetened almond milk option, which is a healthier 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 – many in our survey had added sugars.
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, hemp and rice milk
Coconut, oat, hemp 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 and sugar lurking in some coconut milks.
Not all are fortified with calcium.
New kids on the block
Peanut milk is a relatively new player in the plant milk market. Nut Brothers Peanut Milk with 8% peanuts has 2% 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.
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?
A 2018 study published in Science compared the environmental footprints of dairy, oat, soy, almond and rice milks. It found dairy milk had a significantly higher impact than the plant-based milks. It causes around three times as much greenhouse gas emissions, uses around ten times as much land and considerably more water, and creates higher levels of eutrophication.
When it comes to comparing plant milks, almond milk is the most water intensive. 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. Almond milk has also come under fire for the detrimental affects on the bees used to pollinate almond orchards.
With the exception of oats, 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.
Not all products show the source of the characterising ingredient. Blue Diamond Almond Breeze packaging says the milk is “blended and packed in Australia” but the company’s website states it uses Californian almonds. Many almond milks are made from Australian almonds but companies told us due to availability issues almonds may be sourced from other countries.
Vitasoy state on the packaging its soy milk is 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 somewhere else. You can usually find this information in the ingredients list.
Boring and Otis oat milks are made with Kiwi oats. But Otis transports its oats to Sweden, where its oat milk is made.
Having country of origin labelling for plant-based milks would help consumers weigh up the environmental impact of their morning pour.