Not too long ago, a decision to avoid drinking animal milks really just meant one thing – soy milk. Now, there are so many alternatives and that can make the decision about which one to choose pretty tricky. To help you navigate the options, we’ve done an overview of the main vegan milks you might find in supermarkets and healthfood stores, or which you might make yourself.
Vegan milks are made from nuts, beans, seeds and grains, singly or in combination. Each of these have widely varying nutritional profiles, but, in most cases, the process is the same: the main ingredient – be it almonds, soybeans, or oats (for example) – is soaked, blitzed and strained, with the end product being your ‘milk’. Ideally, what you buy will contain just a few ingredients, with the first two always being water and the nut/seed/bean/grain.
Due to nutrient deficits, and consistency, texture and taste issues, other ingredients are commonly added, for instance vitamins and minerals, oils, emulsifiers, thickeners, sugars, and flavouring. Not all milks are created equal, so we recommend taking a good look at the ingredient panel before you buy. Your decision will come down to what constitutes the best choice for you – if a bit of added sugar or flavouring means that you will actually consume the milk, then that may be the best option for you.
In supermarkets and cafes, almond milk is vying with soy for the top spot in plant milks.
This is mainly due to its lovely taste and smooth texture, not its nutritional value. While it is a source of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (lovely for the brain and heart, etc) and it is low in calories (about half that of skim milk), it is also really low in protein (1gm/cup) and, like many plant milks, needs to be fortified with nutrients to be a viable milk alternative. (Bear in mind that a typical carton of almond milk can contain as low as 2% almonds). Unfortunately, a recent study out of Oxford university also found that it has the poorest environmental rating – requiring more water to produce than soy, oat or rice. On the plus side, it makes a mean smoothie and the fresh, chilled product can easily substitute a straight glass of milk.
Oat milk shone in the abovementioned Oxford University study: it was found that no other milk had less of an environmental impact in terms of emissions, land use and water use – so that’s a cause for celebration in itself! On top of that, it is very palatable, especially for kids, a decent source of protein (4gm/cup) and – rare in plant milks – fibre (including the lovely cholesterol lowering beta glucan). It does come with some caveats though: it is higher in carbohydrates than most milks (including the unsweetened varieties), which could rule it out for those watching their carb intake; it is a grain, which may be an digestive issue for some, and it also a potential issue for those avoiding gluten. The latter is mainly due to the fact that it is typically processed alongside gluten-containing grains, which makes contamination a significant risk. Those things aside, it is a lovely, creamy drink and excellent for cooking and baking and it makes amazing porridge. Also, oats, traditionally, are soothing and nourishing and strongly anti-inflammatory, so the milk is a lovely nourishing addition to the diet.
Rice milk gets the award for being the lowest allergy milk – there are no nuts, gluten-containing grains, or soy in sight! It also came out looking pretty good in the Oxford University environmental impact study, showing low impact on land and water use (though high on emissions – but still less than half that of dairy). On down side, it is quite thin, so not great for coffee or baking, and is low in protein (1gm/cup) and minimal fats. It has a high carb content and can be naturally very sweet, so definitely seek out unsweetened products.
Soy has long reigned as the queen of plant milk and there are good reasons why. Firstly, it has a nutritional profile very similar to cow’s milk in terms of fat, carbs, micronutrients and protein – in fact it has the highest protein content of all the plant milks, around 7grams per glass. Secondly, it contains plant sterols that have been found to be protective against certain diseases, including cardio- and cerebro-vascular disease and some cancers. It also contains isoflavones, which act as plant oestrogens, assisting with menopausal symptoms and protecting against osteoporosis. Thirdly, soy has been on the market so long that most products now are really tasty (not like some of the shockers of years gone by) and available in a range of flavours and products. It typically comes fortified with calcium and other micronutrients, which makes it a viable milk alternative on a nutritional level. In the Oxford University study, soy milk got a big tick – it had low water and land requirements.
However, soy milk is not without some issues. The lovely isoflavones that we mentioned (weakly) mimic the hormone oestrogen. This can (and often does) mitigate the effects of our own oestrogen in a positive way, but there is the risk that they may promote a stronger oestrogen signal than is undesirable. Further, individuals with compromised thyroid function, may need to monitor their soy intake from all sources, due to potential impact on thyroid hormone production (and uptake of synthetic thyroid hormones, if taken). Lastly, it is important to know that soy is the primary genetically modified crop in the world; if your soybeans have originated in North, South or Central America, it is highly likely they are GMOs.
Cashews make gorgeous milk, though it is harder to find it in the supermarket compared to almond milk, so making your own is a great option. It has a delicious taste and is really creamy. Nutritionally it is low in calories and carbs, a decent source of fatty acids, and when fortified, is contributes to micronutrient requirements. On the down side, it is low in protein (1gm/cup) – but it so makes up for it with its versatility. It makes the best cream and cheese substitute, can be turned into a yoghurt substitute with a simple squeeze of lemon and is delicious in coffee. It is important to note that, while it wasn’t covered in the Oxford University study, there have been some news reports about fair-trade issues with cashew crops, so it is worth considering the origins of the cashews and seek out brands who ensure ethical treatment of workers.
When we talk about coconut in the context of plant milks, generally we are talking about coconut milk beverages – not the milk or cream designed for cooking – although depending on your palate they can be used interchangeably. Regardless of the product, coconut is – with the exception of protein (it contains almost none) – pretty nutrient dense (comprising a range of vitamins and minerals in decent amounts), a good source of medium chain triglycerides (a good thing) and lauric acid. It is also super versatile in how it can be used. The thinner drinking milks are lovely in a hot chocolate, over muesli, in a chia pudding, and of course they all work in many Asian inspired dishes, where the coconut flavour is ideal. The thicker coconut milks make a great ice cream and when chilled can be whipped to make an amazing whipped cream substitute.
This list is far from exhaustive (we haven’t touched on flax, quinoa, spelt, hemp, macadamia or hazelnut!), so we are clearly spoilt for choice – and even as we were writing this, we became aware of new plant milks (pecan milk?) on the market. The best part is we can alternate between them all, choosing whichever best suits our taste and needs at that time. So, happy drinking!
Elise Catterall is a naturopath with a Bachelor of Health Science (Naturopathy) and a Master of Public Health (Professional Practice) from the University of Sydney.
Main photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels. Rice bowl photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels