What are plant based milks?
Whether you follow a vegan diet, have a lactose intolerance or just want to try out something new in your latte drinks: Plant-based milk alternatives have become mainstream over the last few years. So much so that due to increased demand, a wide selection of vegan milks has found its way from specialty vegan health food stores into large chain-supermarkets and even cafés now offer plant milk alternatives. The choice however can sometimes be a bit overwhelming so we’ve asked ourselves, which is the most healthy, the most planet-friendly and the most nutritious plant-based milk? Find out which plant milk works for your needs!
Vegan Milk, the non-dairy milk alternative
There’s a lot of controversy on whether or not you can call them “milk,” considering the definition of the word milk is: “An opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young.” But one thing’s for sure: these non-dairy milk alternatives are here to stay!
So what makes plant-based milk healthier than dairy? For one thing, they don’t contain hormones or antibiotics. Hormones are one of the reasons why dairy is linked to acne and certain types of cancers (like prostate cancer, mentioned above).
Dairy consumption is also associated with heart disease. One study conducted by the Harvard Chan School found that participants reduced their risk of heart disease by nearly 30% when they replaced full-fat dairy products with carbohydrates from whole grains.
And unlike dairy milk, plant-based milk is lactose-free. Why does that matter? Because “65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.” If you’ve ever experienced bloating, upset stomach or even diarrhea after eating dairy, you may want to consider switching to dairy-free milk that’s easier on your gut!
Plant-based milk is also healthier for the planet! A study by the University of Oxford shows that a glass of dairy milk produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions than any non-dairy milk.
In case you’re not keeping score, that’s 4 points plant-based milk, 0 points dairy milk.
The different types of plant milk
Low in fat, high in vitamins, rich in antioxidants - plant-based milk alternatives promise a lot on their packaging. From oat to almond to quinoa - the different vegan milks vary in nutritional value, production process, calories and eco-friendliness.
Let’s have a look at whole milk so you can better compare to vegan milk alternatives. Full fat milk contains a relatively high amount of fat and proteins. However, the fatty acids are saturated. In addition, there are carbohydrates. In milk, this is almost exclusively lactose - i.e. milk sugar - and other substances such as calcium, iodine, zinc and vitamin B12. In total, 100 ml of whole milk have 64 calories, contain 5g of carbohydrates, 3.5g of fat and 3g of protein.
Low calorie plant milk
Oat milk contains only 45 kcal per 100ml however almond milk is one of the lowest-calorie milks of all with only 24 kcal per 100ml. Unsweetened almond milk contains even fewer calories than low-fat cow's milk and few carbohydrates. This milk also has more protein than rice or oat milk, so it is a better choice if you want to lose weight. Unfortunately, almond milk is not always as healthy as it could be if sugar and other undesirable substances are added to it.
Generally it can be said that the calorie difference between vegan milk alternatives is relatively low. Since they contain lots of valuable nutrients and are very low in saturated fats, don’t worry too much about picking the lowest calorie option but rather the one that you like most or that fits your dish best! As with everything store-bought, make sure to read the label so that no “hidden” and artificial ingredients are added.
Most eco-friendly plant milk
Let’s assess the different milks ecologically. Here the answer is relatively clear: cow's milk comes off worst in the eco-balance.This is because both land consumption and CO2 emissions are high. In Europe, the production of one litre of cow's milk produces 1.3 kg of CO2 - which is roughly equivalent to burning ½ L of petrol. However, the relatively poor ecological balance of cow's milk doesn’t automatically mean that plant milk products perform better - here, too, the balance is mixed.
With soy milk, for example, it depends very much on where the soy is grown. However, most manufacturers of soy milk claim that they use exclusively or mostly European soybeans. In 2009, a Swedish study concluded that soy milk uses 60 per cent less land and produces a quarter less greenhouse gases than conventional cow's milk.
Oat milk is considered the most eco-friendly plant milk. This is because oats are often grown locally, transport distances are short and water consumption is low. Compared to semi-fat cow's milk, it pollutes the climate about 70 % less.
Things are looking different for rice milk as rice is mainly grown in Asia, but some producers also source it from Europe. Nevertheless, rice cultivation requires a lot of water, which makes the eco-balance of rice milk worse.
In the case of almond milk, the main negative effect is that many almonds come from California - where almonds are grown in monocultures which is also a big minus point in the carbon footprint.
So if you want to buy an eco-friendly plant milk, first of all make sure it’s been produced organically and then opt for a local alternative such as oat milk (which you can even make at home in just a few steps!).
Plant milk with the most calcium
Calcium is essential for bone stability, cell formation and to prevent blood clotting, among other things. But do we really need milk to cover the daily requirement of about one gram per day? In fact, many plant foods provide as much or even more calcium than cow's milk with its approximately 120 milligrams per 100 ml, and they can all be easily integrated into the diet. The milk alternative richest in calcium is sesame. Sesame seeds contain up to 750 mg of calcium per 100 g. As sesame is not widely available in stores (yet) and might be up to everyone’s taste (we are big lovers of Tahini though), almond milk might be a better high-calcium option. Almond as well as oat milk have the highest amounts of calcium compared to other plant-based milks and almost 50% more than whole milk! If you have high calcium requirements, some vegan milks are fortified with calcium, e.g. oat milk, which you can easily see by checking the nutrition label in the back.
Top 8 best plant based milks
When it comes to choosing your plant-based milk you have plenty of options. Since their rise in popularity, plant-based milks now come in many forms, and have different flavor profiles as well as nutritional value.
But don’t worry – we’ve done the hard work for you! We’re breaking down the most popular plant-based milk alternatives to help you decide which one may be best for you.
Bonus: Most plant-based milk is shelf-stable, which makes them easy to stock up on!
1. Almond milk
Almond milk is made from soaking blanched almonds in water.
- Low in calories
- 50% more calcium than dairy milk
- High in vitamins E, A and D
- Low in protein compared to other plant-based milks
- Takes about 920 gallons of water to cultivate one gallon of almond milk (which is still less water than it takes to produce a gallon of dairy milk!)
- Nuts are a common allergy among children and adults
How to use:
Because of its light consistency, almond milk goes great in smoothies!
2. Rice milk
Rice milk is made from milled rice and water.
- A great choice for those with nut and soy allergies
- Naturally sweeter than other plant-based milk
- Low in nutrients
How to use:
Because of its light consistency, rice milk is best enjoyed with cereal or by the glassful.
3. Oat milk
Oat milk is the new darling of plant-based milk. It’s made by soaking, blending, then straining oats through a cheesecloth.
- Good source of soluble fiber, which supports heart and digestive health
- Fortified with vitamins A, D, B2, and B12
- High in calories
- Difficult to find unsweetened oat milk
How to use:
Thanks to its creamy consistency, oat milk is perfect for making homemade lattes!
4. Quinoa milk
Quinoa milk is made by soaking, blending then straining quinoa through a cheesecloth.
- Good source of protein
- Good source of fiber
- Low in sugar
- Difficult to find in mainstream grocery stores
How to use:
Add quinoa milk to smoothies, homemade lattes, and porridges!
5. Soy milk
Soy milk is the original plant-based milk. It’s made from soybeans and filtered water.
- 7-12g of protein per cup
- Often fortified with calcium and potassium
- Some brands use genetically modified soybeans (we recommend always buying organic soy milk!)
How to use:
Soy milk is great for drinking plain, adding to smoothies, cooking and baking.
6. Coconut milk
Coconut Milk is made from filtered water and coconut cream. In the refrigerated aisle, it’s often referred to as “coconut beverage” as it’s more diluted than canned coconut milk, often used for cooking curries.
- Creamy consistency
- Can be fortified to be a good source of calcium
- Low in protein
- High in saturated fat
How to use:
Coconut milk goes great in smoothies and curries.
7. Hemp milk
Hemp milk is made from soaking whole hemp seeds in water, then straining the liquid from a cheesecloth. (Although the hemp plant is used to produce marijuana, hemp milk doesn’t cause mind-altering effects and contains only small trace amounts of THC.)
- Has more protein and healthy fats than almond milk
- Has fewer calories than cow’s milk
- Contains essential fatty acids
- Commercial varieties often include thickeners and other additives.
How to use:
Hemp milk has a natural buttery, nutty flavor so it goes best in cooking and baking.
8. Cashew milk
Similar to almond milk, cashew milk is made from soaking and straining raw cashews.
- Contains healthy fats
- Good source of protein
- Store bought versions often contain added sugars, oils and preservatives
How to use:
Because of its creamy texture, cashew milk goes great in just about everything. Try it in your soup or porridge!
How to make your own cashew milk
Making your own plant-based milk is easier than you think and only requires a few ingredients.
Soak 1 cup of cashews in very hot water for 15 minutes or in room temperature water for 1–2 hours or longer.
Drain and rinse the cashews, then add them to a blender with 3–4 cups of water. Blend on high for 30 seconds to 1 minute or until smooth and frothy.
If desired, add dates or maple syrup to sweeten.
You can keep your cashew milk in a glass jar or container in the fridge for up to three to four days. If it separates, simply shake before use.