Are Plant-Based Milks Healthy?
Today’s “Ask the Nutrition Consultant” question comes from Nate!
Q: Our family usually consumes cows milk, but once and a while we enjoy having a non-dairy milk alternative such as oat milk. I’ve recently seen some posts on social media that non-dairy milk alternatives aren’t very healthy and can even be detrimental to weight loss goals. Should we be staying away from non-dairy milk alternatives? Are there healthier versions/brands to use?
A: Non-dairy milk alternatives are all the rage these days and this is a great question Nate! I can say I do not typically recommend non-dairy milk alternatives such as oat, almond, or soy milks over grass-fed organic whole dairy milk for multiple reasons.
Reason #1: Few plant-based milks can match grass-fed cow, goat, or sheep’s milk dairy in nutrition. Dairy milk is rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B12 (cobalamin), and vitamins A and D (contains small amounts naturally but are often fortified). Plant-based milks are highly processed products and vitamins and minerals need to be added to the product to get them even close to dairy milk. If we compare just protein alone: an 8 ounce serving of grass-fed whole milk contains 8 grams of protein whereas an 8 ounce serving of almond milk contains only 1 gram! Organic soy milk is the only milk that comes close to the nutritional content of dairy milk. Unfortunately soy is one of the top food allergens identified by the FDA and most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (GMO).
Reason #2: Many plant-based milk alternatives contain lots of added sugars. For optimal health we should limit our added sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) per day for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) per day for men. Children younger than 2 years of age should not be fed foods with added sugars at all.
Let’s take a look at the amount of sugar in some popular non-dairy milks:
Original Silk Soy Milk: 5 grams of added sugars (over 1 teaspoon worth of sugar).
Oatly Oat Milk: 7 grams of added sugars (nearly 2 teaspoons of sugar).
Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Original: 7 grams of added sugars (nearly 2 teaspoons of sugar).Yes, some brands like Blue Diamond Almond Breeze do sell unsweetened versions, but they then add “natural flavors” which are anything but natural to improve the taste.
Reason #3: Commercial plant-milk products often contain things like carageenan or other thickeners and gums to improve texture and many have adverse affects on the gut. Carageenan has the potential to contain MSG, and it is highly inflammatory to the gastrointestinal tract. It has been shown to cause ulcerative colitis-like symptoms in laboratory animals and is linked to colon cancer (Cornucopia Institute, 2012).
If you cannot have dairy products and need an occasional plant-based milk to use I would recommend an organic coconut milk such as Nature’s Greatest Foods Pure Coconut Milk which contains only organic coconut extract and water (no added sugar, guar gum, or carageenan). If you prefer soy milk Silk brand does offer an Organic Unsweetened Soymilk option (non-GMO, no added sugars, but does still contain gellan gum). You can also make your own unsweetened almond milk at home, but again nutritionally it will not stand up next to dairy milk.
How to make homemade almond milk (Yields 4 cups):
- Soak 1 cup of raw almonds in purified water overnight.
- Drain and rinse almonds.
- Place the almonds in a high power blender (I recommend a Vitamix) and add 4 cups of purified water (you can add 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract too if you’d like).
- Blend on high speed for 1-2 minutes until smooth.
- Using a nut bag, cheesecloth, or clean tea towel, strain the milk into a large bowl. Discard the pulp or save it for biscotti, crackers or energy bites (lots of recipes online!).
- Store almond milk in a glass contain with lid in the fridge for up to 7 days.
Cornucopia Institute (2012). Food grade carrageenan: reviewing potential harmful effects on human health: Executive Summary. https://www.cornucopia.org/CornucopiaAnalysisofCarrageenanHealthImpacts042612.pdf