Updated: Feb 11
Whether it’s for ethical reasons or suspected intolerances, alternative plant milks
have proved popular and freely available in recent times. It can be hard to know
which alternative to go for; oat, almond, soya, rice, hemp and coconut, which all
have a different nutrient make up. Here’s a quick guide to the nutritional content
of these alternative ‘milks’.
Almond or other milks
Almond milk or other nut milks are made by blending almonds with water and then straining the mixture to remove the solids. It can also be made by adding water to almond butter, and can be made at home. In commercial processing, the milky white liquid is generally homogenized using high pressure and pasteurized to increase stability and shelf life.
It has a pleasant, nutty flavor and creamy texture that’s similar to regular milk. Almonds naturally contain Vitamin E, an antioxidant which helps protect lipids against oxidation, reducing the levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease, and oleic acid, the main fatty acid in almond oil, has been linked to beneficial changes in blood lipids.
However, it also contains phytic acid, an antinutrient that can reduce the absorption of iron, zinc, and magnesium but it may be protective of kidney stones. It may not be suitable alternative for babies and children given its low fat content and inhibiting the absorption of iron.
This drink is made by blending of oats and water together, then straining the mixture to create a smooth and creamy liquid. It is low in fat, but also low in protein, and the highest sugar content of plant milks. The beta glucans from the oats contain more fibre than the other milks and is often with added vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D to ensure its nutritionally balanced.
Not to be confused with coconut water, is a source of saturated fat, and the jury is out on whether this is bad for our heart health as some studies have found the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol increasing inline with ‘bad’ LDL levels. Coconut oil also contains medium-chain fatty acids capric acid and caprylic acid which are less
likely to be stored as fat and more likely to be burned as fuel.
Rice milk can be a useful alternative for allergies caused by soybean and nut milks. The processing of milled brown rice leads to the breakdown of carbohydrates into sugars which gives the rice milk its characteristic sweet taste. It has a higher sugar content than cows milk but lower in protein and fat.
Made from soaking and grinding soy beans, and it has been a traditional part of the Asian diet for thousands of years. The beans are typically soaked overnight, their skins are then removed before being blended with water and strained. The remaining liquid or ‘milk’ is then heated before being cooled and stored. Soy is the only plant milk offering a complete spectrum of amino acids as cow’s milk does, and is relatively high in protein compared to others, so a good source for vegans. We know that soy contains certain phytochemicals that may help
improve cholesterol levels, as well as some menopausal symptoms, however whilst the evidence is mixed, official guidance suggests avoiding soy if suffering from estrogen dependent cancers such as breast or ovaries.
Made by blending water with the seeds of the hemp plant though many commercial varieties may contain sweeteners, salt or thickeners . Whilst not as commercially available, the fat in hemp milk is unsaturated essential fatty acids, including linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), which are essential for building new tissue and membranes in your body. Vegans may find this a useful as the richest sources of these fats are found in seafood. Additionally, hemp is rich in the amino acid arginine, which your body needs to create nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps relax blood vessels and maintain a healthy blood pressure.
Remember, cow’s milk is a complete protein, provides calcium, is easily absorbed, and iodine important for thyroid health. Many of the plant-based milks are fortified with B and D vitamins, as well as calcium but how well these are absorbed compared to natural food sources may be in doubt. Above all, taste is likely to dictate which one you go for!
Soy milk is the closest to cow’s milk for nutrients and all are lower in calories except for rice milk
Buy unsweetened varieties
Look at labels as nutrition and fortification will vary between brands, particularly for calcium needs
Consider supplementing iodine if a vegetarian/vegan as cow’smilk is an important thyroid nutrient
Consider additional protein sources if choosing almond, rice, coconut or hemp milks