How to Choose Your Plant Based Milk? Vegan Milks 101

Gone are the days when milk came only from cow or goat. Now we can “milk” nuts, seeds, grains and even beans! But are these plant milks healthy? Which one is the best? And the worst? What should we look out for when choosing a plant milk?  And why would we want to substitute plant milk for dairy milk in the first place?

Here is your plant based milks guide:

Why substitute dairy milk with plant milk?

Almond Milk - no cow had to suffer to produce this delicious plant based milk

Dairy cows live a miserable life.  Artificially inseminated on what dairy farmers call “the rape rack”, dairy cows gestate for the same 9 months we humans do, only to have their babies snatched away shortly after birth.  All animals have the instinct to protect and nourish their young and mother cows and their newborns suffer terribly for being separated.  The young female calves will become dairy cows like their mothers, pumped full of hormones to grow huge udders. Male calves are sold to the veal industry, one of the cruelest businesses around.  When a dairy cow becomes worn out by constant pregnancies and milking, she is slaughtered to enter the human and pet food supply.

Plant based milks allow us to still enjoy milk, while not participating or funding the mistreatment of cows.

But isn’t dairy milk important for our health?

We have all been sold on the calcium myth that “milk does a body a good” yet clinical research shows otherwise. The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which followed more than 75,000 women for 12 years, showed no protective effect of increased milk consumption on fracture risk. In fact, increased intake of calcium from dairy products was associated with a higher fracture risk! 

Additionally, since we are not baby cows, humans are usually unable to digest cow’s milk.  Over 80% of the world’s population lack the enzymes needed to breakdown the milk sugars in dairy and suffer from painful bloating, gas, and diarrhea when consuming dairy products.  The fat in dairy products clogs arteries and contributes to heart disease.  Recent research such as The China Study has found a strong connection between dairy consumption and cancer growth.

One plant-milk caveat

These milks are recreational: Adult humans have no more need for almond milk than we do for cow's milk

Before I address the merits of the different plant milks, I just want to make sure we all understand that in most cases, these milks are recreational beverages. Adult humans have no more need for almond milk than we do for cow’s milk. Our bodies need water to drink and that is pretty much it. The rest is just for fun, for taste, for enjoyment, maybe a source of calories for the underweight and a few additional grams of protein for those concerned about their protein intake. Furthermore, the advice in this article is NOT meant for babies or very young children, who should be breast or formula-fed as per the instructions of your pediatrician.

Which plant based milk is the most nutritious?

When evaluating different plant milks from a nutritional perspective, there are several issues to consider: nutrients, sugars, sodium, and carageenan. Different brands of milk will have different nutritional properties.

Soy milk, with its smooth, creamy taste is one of the most popular non dairy milks and with 8-10g of protein per cup, it is also the most protein rich of all plant milks. It is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D as well. Soy has protective health benefits due to its phytoestrogen content. On the flip side, soy is a common allergen, it is often GMO, and if you eat a lot of soy foods daily such as tofu or tempeh, it would be a better choice to not also drink a lot of soy milk.

Oat milk has the highest amount of healthy fiber

Hemp is a great source of Omega-3 fats and hemp milk contains 4 times more omega-3′s than soy milk does but is lower in protein. Hemp is generally well-digested and contains 10 essential amino acids. Hemp milk is my personal choice from a nutrition perspective.

Almond milk and hazelnut milk generally have only about 1g of protein per serving but are also often lower in calories than soy milk. Almond milk is a good source of calcium. Hazelnut Milk is rich in B vitamins, and vitamin E which promotes healthy skin and hair among other benefits.

Oat milk has less protein than the other milks, but the highest amount of healthy fiber.  It also contains a decent amount of calcium and iron.

Rice milk has little nutritional value and is often heavily sweetened. It is best tolerated by people with allergies but everyone else should skip it.

Coconut milk is controversial.  You can find as many people pro-coconut as anti, and even the health experts can’t agree. Coconut milk is very high in calories and fat. A glass of coconut milk has between 90- 500 calories depending on whether it is canned (higher) or a boxed and watered down brand such as Silk.  Coconut milk is 3 times higher in saturated fat than even cow’s milk!  Whether that fat is “good fat” or “bad fat” remains to be seen.   I am going to go with cautious moderation with coconut milk.  Enjoy a splash in your coffee for a creamy taste, relish a decadent coconut curry, or a post-workout coconut smoothie, but unless you are an endurance athlete, someone trying to gain weight, and you have low cholesterol and no family history of heart disease, I would not make coconut milk a daily habit personally.  Look for a brand without additives and carrageenan (see below).

Added Sugars in plant milks

The biggest concern with plant milks by far, is their added sugar content. Don’t be fooled! Ingredients like “evaporated cane juice” are just fancy names for sugar. Some plant milks have over 20g of sugar per glass – that is equivalent to a Tablespoon of sugar! Look for brands where sugar is less than 12g per serving.

Keep an eye on the Sodium

Plant milks can also be high in sodium which is not good for your health. Keep sodium to less than 100mgs per serving.

Coconut Milk: Look for a brand without additives and carrageenan

Carrag-what?

Carrageenan, or Irish Moss, is a seaweed used as a thickener and emulsifier in foods such as ice cream, candies, vitamin supplements, and you guessed it, plant milks! Recent research has shown that carrageenan can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, lesions and even colon cancer in animals. People suffering from inflammatory bowel conditions are advised to avoid products containing carrageenan.

Now, if you are just using say 1/3 cup soy milk in your coffee once a day, I don’t think you need to worry too much about the minute amount of carrageenan you may be ingesting. But if you are drinking several glasses a day, and eating other products containing carrageenan, it would be important to choose a brand of plant milk that does not contain carrageenan.

Which plant milk is the tastiest?

As we all know, flavor is a matter of personal taste. But with that said, it’s important to remember that the flavor of each milk doesn’t only depend on the ingredients used, but also on the formula each brand utilizes. Soy milk, almond milk, or any other milk can taste quite different from one brand to another, and sometimes it can take quite a few tastings until you find the one the you like the most.

Another thing to keep in mind is that different milks taste differently when used in various foods and drinks. While coconut milk might work really well in a curry, rice milk probably wouldn’t; While almost every milk can work in porridge, you might find that oat milk compliments the taste of your oats the best; Different people like different plant based creamers in their coffee, but might find that completely different milks compliment their cooking or their baking best. The key is to experiment and learn what works best for you, as you go along.

Make Your Own!

Of course, the best way to avoid all of the additives in commercially produced plant milk, is to make your own. The basic template for nut, grain and seed milk is as follows:

1 cup nuts, grains or seeds

4 cups water

1-2 dates for sweetness

vanilla or almond extract or any other flavor you fancy

Directions: Soak the nuts, seeds or grains overnight in water to cover. Drain and discard the water. Place the soaked nuts, seeds or grains in your blender and add the 4 cups of fresh water. Blend for several minutes until the mixture is smooth. Strain in a strainer or special nut milk bag, saving the nut pulp for use in baking. Return the strained milk to the blender and add dates and any additional flavors. Blend until smooth. Nut milks will keep for 3-4 days in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

For recipes using that leftover nut milk, Gena Hamshaw at Choosing Raw, has a great post with 3 delicious sounding nut pulp recipes.

Enjoy your cruelty-free milk!

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Vegan Health & Nutrition Columnist

Emily is a board certified holistic health coach and the founder and owner of Triumph Wellness, an International Nutrition Counseling Practice.
Emily specializes in Plant-Based Nutrition, Sugar Addiction, Emotional Eating and Sports Nutrition.

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