It is worth pointing out however that they still only account for about 7% of all milk consumed in Australia and so dairy milk reigns supreme for now.
Of the plant milks, soy milk dominates the market accounting for almost half, with almond milk hot on its tails. Then we have coconut milk, oat milk, rice milk and combinations, some with added ingredients such as pea protein to boost the nutritional content.
So, how do all these milks stack up nutritionally and on price?
What is in plant milks?
There is some controversy right up front with plant milks and that is in the name. Should they be allowed to be called milks? After all the dictionary definition of milk is:
“an opaque white or bluish-white liquid secreted by the mammary glands of female mammals”
That’s why some plant milks instead use the spelling mylk, which is not in the dictionary at all. But hey let’s put aside the naming arguments and look at exactly what is in a plant milk.
Start reading the ingredients lists and you’ll see that pretty much all of them – every single one of those I reviewed – have water (or specified as filtered water) as the first ingredient. This has led some people to ask if plant milks are just expensive water. To be fair the biggest component of dairy milk is also water. What matters is what else is in there.
The second ingredient is usually, but not always, the featured plant food. i.e. It should be soy beans for soy milk, almonds for almond milk, oats for oat milk and so on. Remember that the ingredients list on foods is in order with the biggest contributors first. If the second ingredient is not the featured plant food, then there is more of this ingredient than the actual plant.
Of the products I reviewed two had a type of sugar as the second ingredient. Sanitarium So Good Original Almond Milk has cane sugar in the second spot, while Bonsoy Almond Milk has tapioca syrup.
Now in the early era of plant milks pretty much all of them had some added sugar and many still do. It is added for taste, without they can taste pretty blah, but also to match more closely the profile of dairy milk. Dairy milk contains the milk sugar lactose and the levels of other sugars added to plant milks is usually around the same. The total carbohydrate of the sweetened plant milks is on average around the 5g/100g mark, similar to dairy milk. So, I am perhaps splitting hairs, but nevertheless a key difference is that sweetened plant milks have added refined sugars, while dairy milk has naturally present sugar. The latter has a low GI and does not have a big impact on your blood glucose levels. The same is not always true for the sugars found in plant milks. Many contain syrups that are primarily glucose and will rapidly hit the bloodstream. As will starches and maltodextrins added to some of these milks. If blood glucose control is a key concern you will want to take that into account and I suggest choosing an unsweetened plant milk.
Some plant milks also have added oils, usually sunflower or canola oil. These are refined oils – not my favourite ingredients. Then there is a wide variation between brands as to the addition of gums, emulsifiers, acidity regulators, flavourings and stabilisers. These additives are of course all regulated and must meet the safety standards. They are safe to consume for most of us, but if you are sensitive to additives you may want to avoid some or all of these ingredients.
For all of us, we don’t know what the effects of some of these additives are to our microbiome – emulsifiers for example have been shown to be detrimental – and all up the ingredients lists of some plant milks certainly put them in the category of a processed rather than whole food.
The other major nutrient to look for is calcium. While of course we can live without dairy foods, as much of the world does, it is a major source of calcium in Australian diets. If you switch to a plant milk look for one that is fortified with calcium to match or you will have to up your intake of other calcium-rich foods.
When it comes to matching the protein content of dairy milk, soy milks are your best choice delivering on average 3.5g protein per 100ml, the same as in dairy. Some have a little more. Bonsoy, the Japanese brand, has 4.1g and a nutritionally impressive Australian product Vitasoy Protein Plus has 4g.
"When it comes to matching the protein content of dairy milk, soy milks are your best choice"
I say nutritionally impressive as this soy milk not only has good protein levels, it also has the highest content of soy beans at 21% (of those I compared), no added sugar, oils or additives and it is fortified with calcium, delivering even more than dairy milk. The only downside may be the more beany taste, but you can test that for yourself.
Bonsoy I know is a favourite on taste with regular soy drinkers. They did have some controversy a few years ago after it was discovered that the kombu seaweed they were adding was exceptionally high in iodine. While many people are iodine deficient, too much is harmful and that’s why there are set upper limits for intake. Rest assured that Bonsoy have sorted the problem and no longer use kombu. They use Job’s Tears, a kind of Asian barley, instead. Overall Bonsoy is a good soy milk. It does have a little sugar (as tapioca syrup) and salt added, but no gums, oils or additives. A downside is the low calcium content, despite listing calcium in the ingredients. If you love Bonsoy be sure to get your calcium from other foods.
My other tip for choosing a good soy milk is to look for one made with whole soy beans and not extracted soy protein. The latter is clearly far more processed and means you miss out on some of the nutrition offered in the whole bean. Soy milk has been consumed for centuries in Asia and you want to consume it in as traditional a form as possible. Bonsoy, Vitasoy, Macro, Alpro and Australia’s Own products all use whole soy beans. Check out your favourite product to be sure of the brand you are buying.
"My other tip for choosing a good soy milk is to look for one made with whole soy beans and not extracted soy protein."
If you are ordering soy coffees when out or as takeout, ask which one they are using. Lots of the barista blends of all plant-based milks, including soy, have oils, sugar or maltodextrin and an array of additives added to help avoiding them splitting when heated. That doesn’t matter for the odd one but may be something you want to think about if you often get your coffee out.
The big plus of almond milks is that they generally have very low kilojoules, making them perfect for those of us trying to lose, or at least not gain, weight. Of the 18 almond milks I compared, the average was 124kJ per 100ml, but they ranged three-fold from 63kJ (Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Milk) to 210kJ (Pure Harvest Activated Almond Milk Original).
"The big plus of almond milks is that they generally have very low kilojoules"
View the below chart on your computer or tablet (might be hard to read on your phone) for the full range with skim milk (around half the kJ of whole milk) and soy milk for comparison.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean the lowest kilojoule ones are the best. It entirely depends on your nutritional goals. The percentage of almonds in the products varies more than fourfold and that in part explains the differences in energy content. Most almond milks have only 2.3-3.8% almonds. The ones at the higher end of the energy scale have 10-11% almonds. Now that may not matter if all you want is a low kilojoule dairy-free alternative and you are eating your nuts separately for their nutrition (a handful a day is recommended for health).
"The percentage of almonds in the products varies more than fourfold"
The other aspect contributing to the differences in energy intake is whether or not sugar in some form is added. Some have sugar (as mentioned above), others brown rice syrup and then there are a few who add a starch like tapioca starch or a partially broken-down starch like maltodextrin. This means they can make a no added sugar claim. Technically it’s allowed, nutritionally it’s really no different.
Since overall plant milks are not the major source of added sugars in most people’s diets let’s not get too worked about it. But since many people choose almond milks for their low carb content, if that is your concern be aware that the carb content varies enormously (from 0.2-7g per 100ml) based on these added ingredients.
The big downside of almond milks is that they don’t give you much protein – less than a quarter of that found in dairy or soy milks. The below graph gives you a visual of the average protein contents of each type of milk. If it’s a protein hit you are after, dairy or soy are clearly your best options.
"The big downside of almond milks is that don’t give you much protein – less than a quarter of that found in dairy or soy milks."
Otherwise there are a couple of other products on the market that you can check out. Essentially, they are using plant protein powders to boost the protein content. Australia’s Own Like Milk is designed to be nutritionally comparable to dairy milk and gets to 3.3g/100ml protein and has the energy and calcium of skim milk. Then Vitasoy Almond Protein+ adds pea protein powder to an almond milk blend to boost the protein to 4g/100ml. They don’t taste like dairy milk just to warn you, but nutritionally they are ticking boxes. Over to you to taste test!
Other plant milks
Coconut milks have become popular just because anything coconut has been flavour of the month. Nutritionally they just don’t cut it I’m afraid. Traditionally coconut milk, as in the stuff you can buy in a can, is used in cooking and that’s where it can be awesome. Where is a green curry without coconut milk? But it is very, very energy dense and so it is really not suitable for pouring into your coffee or over your muesli. The stuff you now buy as a milk alternative has basically been watered down. I’m not sure I see the point. It has almost no protein and is not a good source of nutrients unless it has been fortified. I would stick to the cans for using in cooking.
"Coconut milk has almost no protein and is not a good source of nutrients unless it has been fortified. I would stick to the cans for using in cooking as is traditional."
Rice milk is good for people with allergies who can’t have the more nutritious options. They tend to be much higher in carbohydrate and have a high GI. Unless you need to, or particularly love it, I’d go for something else.
Oat milks are the newer kids on the block and they offer more protein than most rice, coconut or almond milks. However, I have not found one that doesn’t add a refined oil, usually canola (sometimes labelled rapeseed). They are a good option however for those with nut, dairy and/or soy allergies and offer some of the goodness you'll find in whole oats.
What about price?
Of all the milks I looked at this is the price range (per litre) for each type of milk:
Dairy milks - $1.29 for the own brand supermarket milk up to $3.20 for speciality milks.
Soy milks - $1.15 for the own brand supermarket soy milk, most in the $1.50-$3.00 range and Bonsoy was the most expensive at $4.80.
Almond milks - $2.00 for the own brand supermarket almond milk, most around the $3.00-$4.00 range and the most expensive was Califia Farms at $5.33.
Other milks – ranged between $1.75 for Pure Harvest Coconut Milk to $4.80 for Oat-ly Oat Milk Barista Edition (their Original Oat Milk was $4.50).
You can see that prices vary significantly and you may want to weigh up price against the nutrition credentials and most importantly the taste to find the brand that suits you best.
The trend towards plant-based eating is for the most part terrific for both our health and the health of our planet. We do have to be careful however in assuming that everything plant based is better for us than the animal food alternative.
Plant milks are a good option for environmental and animal welfare reasons. Nutritionally they don’t always stack up. As with all created rather than whole food products you need to read the ingredients list and the nutrition panel to choose the product best suited to your needs.
If you are looking for a protein hit post your workout, almond milk just won’t cut it. You need dairy (the best option from sports science research) followed by soy milk (and you don’t need an expensive highly processed protein powder by the way although I admit that is sometimes convenient).
If you want a low carb, low kilojoule option to milk up your coffee, almond milk is a good bet. Just don’t expect the nutrition of eating a handful of almonds.
If you have an allergenic profile (or your child does), rice milk might be the safest and best option. Look for a brand with added calcium.
And sometimes a particular recipe just might suit a particular type of plant milk. E.g. using oat milk in your Bircher muesli works well.
Diversity is always good and so long as you get your protein and calcium from other foods, it may not matter that your plant milk doesn’t deliver these nutrients. At the end of the day it’s your overall diet that counts and what milk fits in with your body best.
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