Read our handy, all you need-to-know, guide on the nutrition of plant-based milk alternatives.
Plant-based milk alternatives are growing in popularity, for vegans, and non-vegans alike. The reasons behind this boom include concerns over the environment, animal welfare, lactose intolerance, cow’s milk protein allergy, and plain old taste preference.
Did you know?
An EU court ruled that the term ‘milk’ cannot be used for products of plant origin. Therefore, while colloquially known as soya milk, or oat milk, these products should be labelled as ‘drinks’ or ‘milk alternatives’. Interestingly, one exception to this rule is coconut milk!
What are the options?
- Soya: a classic. Most nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk, the highest protein option.
- Oat: close behind soya milk in protein content. Additionally, it contains beta glucans. This soluble fibre has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol. You should aim to consume 3g beta glucan per day, a 250ml glass of oat milk contains around 1g.
- Rice: a gentle versatile flavour, low in protein but high in sugar. Due to its arsenic content, it is not recommended for children under 5 years of age.
- Coconut: delicious, but highest in fat, saturated fat while being low in protein.
- Almond: great for lovers of nuts, lowest in energy.
- Pea: a relative newcomer to the market, pea has a distinctive taste. The protein content is second highest (behind soy).
Ecological impact versus dairy
Studies have shown that soy milk is more environmentally sustainable than cow’s milk when measured using carbon emissions, land and water use. In comparison, data for other milk alternatives is less established, although it is likely they also have less environmental impact.
Interestingly, when data is analysed using an index of nutrient density in relation to climate change cow’s milk tops the list. This is because cow’s milk is superior in its macro and micronutrient content.
Most areas now offer kerbside recycling of tetra packs.
Table: macronutrient comparison of bovine milk and plant-based milk alternatives. All values per 100ml.
|Cow’s milk (whole)||66kcal||3.7g||2.4g||4.7g||4.7g||3.5g||Nil|
|Cow’s milk (semi skimmed)||50kcal||1.8g||1.1g||4.8g||4.8g||3.6g||Nil|
|Cow’s milk (skimmed)||37kcal||0.3g||0.1g||5g||5g||3.6g||Nil|
|Soya sweetened with sugar||39kcal||1.8g||0.3g||2.5g||2.5g||3g||0.5g|
|Rice (unsweetened)||50kcal||1.0g||0.1g||10g||7.1g||0.1g||data not available|
|Coconut (milk drink not canned)||16kcal||1.6g||1.4g||0.2g||0.2g||0.2g||<0.5g|
Data taken from market leading products, individual products may vary in composition please check the label.
Additonally, cow’s milk contains many micronutrients not found in plant-based options. For instance, calcium, iodine, folate & B12.
- Many plant-based options are lower in energy and protein than cow’s milk.
- The highest energy and protein milk alternatives are Soya and Oat.
- Plant-based milk alternatives naturally contain no calcium. Dairy products are key sources of calcium in the diet.
- Most non-organic plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, at the same level as found in cow’s milk.
- The calcium found in fortified milk alternatives has the same bioavailability as that in cow’s milk.
- If you choose a version which is not fortified (such as many organic options) take some time to consider where you will get your calcium from. Click here for a handy guide on this.
- Some plant-based milk alternatives are also fortified with vitamins B2, B12, D3 and Iodine. This can be a convenient way of boosting intake of these nutrients, especially if you are vegan.
Alongside fortification (the addition of vitamins and minerals) many plant-based milk alternatives have other added ingredients. For instance, added sugar, salt, oil and preservatives and stabilisers. For example, sweetened versions have added sugar or apple juice. Do check the ingredients panel on the back of pack to see what has been added.
Allergy & intolerance
Plant-based milk alternatives are naturally free from lactose and cow’s milk protein. Around 50% of people who are allergic to cow’s milk protein also react to soy protein. Soya milk in portions over 60ml is also high FODMAP. Therefore, in these scenarios, oat milk may be a good alterative. Oat milk can contain gluten so be sure to check the label if you have coeliac disease or a gluten allergy.
The bottom line
In conclusion, plant-based milk alternatives are generally more environmentally sustainable than cow’s milk. They are helpful for vegans, plant-based eaters and also delicious alternatives to add flavour in cooking & baking for all. Plant-based milk alternatives naturally lack some key micronutrients found in cow’s milk, so consider choosing a fortified option. Additionally, where possible try to avoid sweetened options and check the label for other additions and allergens.
After all that reading, we suggest you pick your favourite plant-based milk and use it to make one of our vegan protein shakes!
This article is not intended to advise on food allergy or intolerance. This should be assessed by your GP or allergy consultant, especially in children. If you have any concerns regarding your nutrient intake or want personalised advice, please consult a registered Dietitian.