Why the plant milk in your coffee may not be as healthy as you think

What you need to know about soy, almond, oat and other plant-based substitutes for cow’s milk

Gone are the days when the most complicated choice you had to make in the milk section of the dairy aisle was low-fat or whole. Now, you will find carton after carton of dairy-like beverages made from foods you never thought could be “milked” – almonds, oats, rice, peas.

While cow’s milk is still the most popular according to retail sales, non-dairy alternatives are growing in popularity. These plant-based alternatives are typically made by soaking the legume, nut, grain or other main ingredient and then pressing and straining the liquid, or “milk”.

Many people prefer them because they want or need to avoid dairy, but some choose them because they believe they are healthier than cow’s milk. Some experts urge consumers to look beyond the hype and to examine the nutrition label of such products, however, because some may not be as healthy as they seem.

Are plant-based milks good for me?

This will depend on which type of plant milk you drink, whether it is fortified, how many added sugars it contains and how it fits into your overall diet. You should not assume, for instance, that plant milks contain the same nutrients as cow’s milk, even if the drink is white and has the same creamy texture. And some of the sweetened versions can contain more added sugar than a doughnut.


"In general, these non-dairy milks have been promoted as healthier, and that's not necessarily the case," says Melissa Majumdar, a spokeswoman for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cow's milk is naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins, and is often fortified with vitamin A (which is naturally present in whole milk) and vitamin D. While many plant-based milks are enriched with many of the nutrients found in cow's milk, not all are.

And many do not provide enough of certain key nutrients like protein, potassium and vitamin D, according to Jackie Haven, deputy administrator for the US department of agriculture's Centre for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: "Usually, these beverages do not include all of the necessary nutrients needed to replace dairy foods."

That being said, non-dairy beverages can be important alternatives for those who are allergic or intolerant to milk or who are otherwise avoiding dairy. And they can be a part of a healthy diet as long as you pay attention to the nutrition-facts label and make sure you are getting the same essential nutrients you would normally get from real milk.

How do the different types of plant milks compare?

According to Spins, a market-research company, the six most popular plant-based milks based on US sales data from the past year are almond, oat, soy, coconut, pea and rice (excluding blended versions, like coconut almond). Here is how the original or unsweetened versions of each stack up to one another and to whole milk in terms of taste, protein, calories, fats and other attributes. (We use whole milk for comparison because it has become more popular in recent years, but keep in mind that dietary guidelines recommend drinking low-fat and skimmed versions rather than whole. All versions below contain calcium and vitamin D.)

Almond milk: This nutty-flavoured beverage is the most popular plant milk in the US, according to Spins. One cup of the unsweetened version has just 37 calories – about one-quarter the amount in a cup of whole milk – and about 96 per cent less saturated fat. But it is no match for cow's milk (or raw almonds themselves) in terms of protein – it has just about 1g of protein, compared with the 8g present in whole milk. If you have a nut allergy, experts recommend avoiding almond milk, as it may trigger an allergic reaction.

Oat milk: Sales of this thick, creamy drink have surged since last year, according to Spins, making it one of the fastest-growing plant milks. One cup of the popular Oatly brand's original version has little saturated fat (0.5g) and slightly fewer calories than whole milk (120 versus 146) but has 7g of added sugars (plain milk has none) and only 3g of protein.

One cup does have some fibre – 2g – but Dr Edwin McDonald IV, an associate director of adult clinical nutrition at the University of Chicago Medicine, says that is not very much. “If you are looking for health benefits from oat milk, you’re better off eating oatmeal,” he says. One cup of oatmeal, for instance, has twice as much fibre as one cup of oat milk. Fibre is important for gut health and blood sugar control, and for maintaining your weight.

Soy milk: When fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D, soy milk is the only non-dairy milk that is comparable to cow's milk in terms of nutrient balance, according to US dietary guidelines. One cup has 6g of protein, 105 calories and about 89 per cent less saturated fat than whole milk. Made from soybeans, it has a similar consistency to cow's milk and is a natural source of potassium.

"If you are looking for more of a nutritionally balanced milk substitute, then pea and soy are going to be the best," says Dr David Ludwig, an endocrinologist and obesity researcher at Boston Children's Hospital. While there has been some concern about the oestrogen-mimicking compounds called isoflavones in soy, there is not enough data to prove any harm or benefit. If you are allergic to soybeans, though, experts say to avoid soy milk.

Coconut milk: Made from the grated meat of coconuts, coconut milk is naturally sweet and has about half as many calories as whole milk, but has little protein (0.5g per cup). One cup has 5g of saturated fats – about the same amount as whole milk – with no healthy unsaturated fat. As with dairy fat, there is the concern that coconut fat can raise the levels of LDL, or "bad", cholesterol, says Alice H Lichtenstein, a Gershoff professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University.

Pea milk: Sometimes called "plant protein milk", this beverage is made from yellow split peas. As with other plant milks that are made from legumes, like soy milk, pea milk is high in protein (8g per cup) and unsweetened versions contain about half the calories of whole milk, and just half a gram of saturated fat. "My favourite non-dairy milk is pea milk," says Dr McDonald, who is lactose intolerant and a trained chef. That is because of its protein, and a texture he likens to cow's milk – somewhat creamy with a mild taste.

Rice milk: Made from brown rice, rice milk has a naturally sweet taste. It has slightly fewer calories than whole milk (115 versus 146 per cup), and no saturated fat; however, it is very low in protein (0.7g per cup). When compared with other plant-based milks, "there doesn't seem to be any benefit from rice milk", Prof Lichtenstein says.

The beverage also has fast-digesting carbohydrates, Dr Ludwig says, which can quickly convert into glucose, spiking insulin and blood sugar levels – a potential concern for people with diabetes or with severe insulin resistance.

Are plant milks worth the money?

While the price of plant-based milks can range widely, cow's milk is often much cheaper. "Cow's milk is going to be the least expensive," says Majumdar. "But it has the most nutrients, so you are getting more bang for your buck." Christopher Gardner, a nutrition scientist and professor of medicine at Stanford Prevention Research Centre, however, says that, for him, the higher price of plant milks is worth it for animal-welfare and environmental reasons. "I've never met a belching soybean or pea," he says, referring to cows' emissions of methane gas. "If you are an ecowarrior, it could be worth the cost."

Not all plant milks are eco-friendly, though. It requires an estimated 15 gallons of water to grow just 16 almonds, and most in the US are grown in drought-stricken California. – New York Times