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A Guide to Plant-Based Milks

Plant-based dairy alternatives have skyrocketed in popularity over recent years. In this article, we walk you through the pros and cons of three of the most popular plant-based milks.


Introduction

In the not-so-distant past, milk alternatives weren’t really a thing. And if they were on offer anywhere, soy milk was the only type available. Flash forward to today and some cafés are even using oat milk as their default option, and just a couple of weeks ago (in February 2024), dairy giant Danone replaced a yoghurt facility with a plant-based dairy facility.


Recent research from the European Commission-funded SMART Protein project found that of the 7,500 European respondents to their survey, 36% consumed plant-based dairy alternatives at least once per week, with health and the environment the biggest motivations for doing so.


Considering the widespread shift towards plant-based dairy alternatives, it’s important to know the pros and cons of each. Therefore, in this article, we discuss the environmental and nutritional characteristics of three of the most popular plant-based dairy alternatives.


Plant-based milks.

Oat Milk

Pros

Compared to dairy milk, oat milk is more environmentally friendly. In fact, the carbon footprint of oat milk was estimated to be only 29% that of low-fat dairy milk in a recent study, while oat milk also uses less land and water in production (Figure 2) (1). In addition, oat milk contains more heart-healthy fibre, and tends to be lower in sugar and saturated fat than dairy milk (2).


Cons

Oat milk is lower in protein than dairy milk, is also often lower in iodine, and can be lower in vitamin B12 and vitamin A relative to dairy milk (2). This is important, as dairy is one of the main sources of iodine in the human diet. However, some brands fortify their oat milks with iodine (e.g., Tesco own-brand, Alpro), making it important that consumers choose such brands, who also fortify their products with calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.


Environmental impacts from dairy milk are mostly from agriculture.

Figure 1. Agriculture is the main contributor to the carbon footprint of dairy milk because raising livestock is quite damaging to the environment, as cattle directly release methane—a potent greenhouse gas—when they burp, and when land is cleared for pasture and feed crop production, this releases a lot of carbon dioxide (and prevents natural ecosystems, like forests, from taking up carbon from the atmosphere) (1).


Almond Milk

Pros

Similar to oat milk, almond milk has a lower environmental impact than dairy milk (Figure 2). Almond milk also contains less total energy (or calories), saturated fat, and sugar than dairy milk, while containing more fibre (2).


Cons

While almond milk uses less water in production than dairy milk, it uses more than other plant-based milks (Figure 2). Similar to oat milk, almond milk is lower in protein compared to dairy milk, and tends to be lower in iodine, vitamin B12, and vitamin A (2). Although this is not always the case, as some products are fortified with comparable quantities of these nutrients relative to dairy milk (2).


Soy Milk

Pros

Soy (or soya) milk is the only popular plant-based milk alternative with as much protein as dairy milk (pea milks can also match dairy milk for protein, but are much less common than soy milk) (2). Soy milk is also a more environmentally friendly option than dairy milk (Figure 2), and contains bioactive compounds that may improve aspects of health (e.g., plant sterols, which lower cholesterol (3)). Further, like oat and almond milks, soy milk is higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat and sugar than dairy milk (2).


Cons

There aren’t many cons to soy milk; however, like oat and almond milks, soy milk often contains less iodine, vitamin B12, and vitamin A than dairy milks (2). But as explained earlier, choosing brands that fortify their products with iodine and vitamin B12 (e.g., Tesco own-brand, Alpro) can alleviate these concerns.


Environmental footprints of dairy and plant-based milks.

Figure 2. Plant-based milk alternatives have a lower environmental impact than dairy milk. Source: Our World in Data.


Summary

When it comes to popular plant-based milk alternatives, soy milk is the winner from a health/nutritional standpoint, while all plant-based milk alternatives are more environmentally friendly than dairy milk. However, because dairy provides a lot of important nutrients to the diet (e.g., calcium, iodine, vitamin B12), it is crucial that if and when you choose to consume plant-based milk alternatives, you choose brands that fortify their products with these nutrients!


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As always, thanks for reading!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121


References

(1) Craig WJ, Messina V, Rowland I, Frankowska A, Bradbury J, Smetana S, Medici E. Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives Contribute to a Healthy and Sustainable Diet. Nutrients. 2023;15(15):3393. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/15/15/3393


(2) Medici E, Craig WJ, Rowland I. A Comprehensive Analysis of the Nutritional Composition of Plant-Based Drinks and Yogurt Alternatives in Europe. Nutrients. 2023;15(15):3415. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/15/15/3415


(3) Abumweis SS, Barake R, Jones PJ. Plant sterols/stanols as cholesterol lowering agents: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Food Nutr Res. 2008;52. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2596710/

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Noté 5 étoiles sur 5.

Great summary article.

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