October: Plant-based milks gaining popularity
by Sophia Speroff, MPH, RD
Plant-based milks are growing in popularity due to many people adopting vegan and plant-based diets because of concerns related to health, animal welfare and the environment. The products of grain-based and cow’s milk are unique. Grain-based milks are not nutritionally equal to cow’s milk, the reason being some of the nutrients may be lost when grains are used to make a beverage.
Soy milk is the original replacement for cow’s milk, appearing on store shelves in the 1950s. It is the only milk alternative that naturally contains the same number of proteins as a cup of cow’s milk – 8 grams, along with omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Soy milk is likely the least processed out of all the plant-based milks; however, it is at the same time one of the top three genetically modified organisms. Most mainstream brands use certified non-GMO ingredients.
Oat milk is made from oats, water, other grains, and beans such as barley, brown rice and soybeans. Consistency is like 1% or skim. It is low in cholesterol, calories and saturated fat while being higher in fiber than other milk alternatives. And it offers 4 grams of protein per cup, with high carbohydrate content due to naturally occurring sugars.
Almond milk is made from ground almonds and water. It is quickly gaining in popularity for those avoiding soy due to allergies. It is best known for being low in calories (30 – 50 calories in 1 cup); however, sweetened varieties can contain up to 90 calories per cup and 16 grams of sugar. Nut milks are typically diluted with water, and while low in calories, this also means lower amounts of the nutrients typically found in nuts, including protein, manganese, magnesium and copper. The protein of this milk is strained out, leaving very little protein: only about 1 gram per 8-ounce cup compared to 8 grams in cow and soy milk.
Overall, grain-based milks vary greatly in terms of nutrition, ingredients and taste. All brands have great individuality, but the one commonality they have is that they are highly processed, mimicking the taste and texture of cow’s milk.
In addition, they are typically fortified with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A, providing some of the important nutrients found in cow’s milk. Soy milk is the closest match, nutritionally, and almond milk is a close second with limited protein amounts being the disadvantage.
Any grain-based milk can take the place of cow’s milk. They are a great choice for vegans and vegetarians, and those who are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy. Read labels carefully, as understanding certifications is more important than ever.
- Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review (nih.gov)
- Moo-ove Over, Cow’s Milk: The Rise of Plant-Based Dairly Alternatives. January-18-Milk-Alternatives.pdf (med.virginia.edu)
This column is sponsored by the Stockbridge Area Wellness Coalition. Sophia Speroff is a Registered Dietitian (RD) of 10 years with her master’s in public health, currently working at St Joseph Mercy Hospital in Chelsea as a community RD. She has an athletic and competitive side, staying active training for triathlons and half marathons. In her free time, Sophia likes to hike, folk dance and garden.