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Are plant-based milks healthy?

rice, soy and almond milks

Supermarket shelves are full of non-dairy milk alternatives — soy, oat, rice, almond, coconut and more. So what’s the deal with these alternatives? And are they as healthy as the old-fashioned cow variety?

How nutritious are plant-based ‘milks’

The abundance of dairy-free milk alternatives is indicative of rising consumer demand. These plant-based alternatives are catering to people with dairy allergies and intolerances, or who want to consume a more plant-based diet for environmental or ethical reasons.

Dairy is a well-known source of bone-strengthening calcium, but also contains many other important nutrients such as protein, vitamins A and B12, riboflavin, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc.

The main ingredient in most milk alternatives is processed and diluted with water. Ingredients are also added to improve colour, flavour and texture. Sometimes plant-based alternatives are fortified with calcium. While they can be a low-carb, low-calorie option for those watching their weight, they usually fall short nutritionally when compared with cow or soy milk.

Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is vital for strong bones. If you don’t drink dairy or soy milk, be sure to consume other foods with good sources of calcium and protein.

5 plant-based ‘milk’ options examined

Rice milk

Easily digestible but contains only a trace of protein. It has a high glycaemic index (GI) of 79–92 and is higher in carbs than other plant milks.

Oat milk

Slightly creamier than most other plant milks and works well in cooking, since it doesn’t break down with heat. Low in protein, with a medium GI (69).

Almond and other nut ‘milks’

Contain a very small proportion of nuts and are mostly water. Low in calories, as typically low in protein, carbs and fat. Some almond milk brands are now boosting their protein content by adding other plant proteins such as rice and pea protein. Macadamia milk often has a slightly higher carb and fat content than almond milk.

Coconut milk

Naturally occurring coconut milk has three times the saturated fat as cow’s milk and, unsurprisingly, has a strong coconut flavour.

Pea protein

This newest addition has been formulated with the same amount of protein and calcium as dairy milk.

Soy milk

A nutrient-dense, low-fat option that’s closest to dairy milk in protein and carbs.

It is also low GI (16–45). Most, but not all, are fortified with calcium.

What to check for when buying plant-based milk alternatives

With so many brands and varieties to choose from, always read the nutrition labels on packaging.

Ingredients

Check the list to see exactly what your milk is made from. As with most packaged foods, the fewer listed ingredients, the better!

Fat

Check the ingredients list to see if fat has been added. Contrary to popular thought, low-fat varieties are not further processed, they just don’t include added oils.

Unsweetened

If the product is made without some form of sugar, this claim usually appears on the front of the packaging.

Calcium

Check the nutrition information panel for 120mg calcium per 100g. If no calcium has been added, this often isn’t included on the label.

First published: Feb 2021

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