Whether it’s for ethical, environmental, health, or dietary reasons, more and more people are choosing to drink plant-based milk instead of traditional dairy. In 2020, the plant-based milk market was worth $2.5 billion and this figure is projected to grow in the coming years.
With so many varieties on the market, it can be hard to know which plant-based milk to choose. Each option has a unique nutritional composition, with some bringing more health-giving benefits than others.
Soy is the most widely available plant-based milk on the market. It is high in protein, cholesterol-free, and lower in fat than dairy milk.
Soy-based foods are a good source of protein, healthy fats, potassium, and B vitamins, as well as isoflavones, known to be effective against cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. To ensure the maximum health benefits, it's best to choose an unsweetened version.
Almond milk is a very popular dairy-free milk because of its nutty taste, creamy texture, and suitability for people with soy intolerances. It's low in calories and carbohydrates and high in vitamin E, an antioxidant known to be beneficial against heart disease and cognitive decline.
It is, however, low in protein and fiber. Many almond milk drinks on the market have added sugar, so it's important to check the label and choose an unsweetened version for daily use.
Oat milk is a relatively recent addition to the plant-based milk market. Its creamy texture makes it a popular choice for dairy-free hot drinks and it’s suitable for people with lactose, soy, and nut allergies.
It is slightly higher in calories and fat than other dairy alternatives, but it’s also higher in protein and fiber. Oats contain soluble fiber, which may help reduce cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Keep in mind, however, that by straining out the solids when making plant milks, a lot of the nutrients in the whole food are lost.
Hemp milk is not as widely available as other plant-based milk drinks, but it is a nutritionally balanced alternative to dairy milk. It is low in calories and carbohydrates and high in healthy fats, like omega-3 and omega-6, which are beneficial for heart health.
Hemp itself is considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids that the body can't make itself and must get from food.
Cashew nut milk is popular for its thick, creamy consistency and mild taste. It is low in calories and cholesterol and, like almond milk, is a good source of vitamin E.
As a milk, however, it does lack fiber and protein. Most commercially available cashew nut milk contains added sugar, but unsweetened versions are available, so keep an eye out for those.
Hazelnut milk is one of the less commonly available plant-based milks, but it is popular for its rich, nutty taste. It is higher in protein than most other options, and, like other nut milks, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.
It is, however, relatively high in fat and calories so should be enjoyed in moderation.
Not the thick and creamy coconut milk used in curries, but a version with more water that can now be found in most stores, coconut milk is a popular dairy-free alternative. It's low in calories and carbohydrates and contains vitamin C and E, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous, which are all beneficial to the body.
However, coconut milk contains no protein and is high in saturated fat, which should be limited due to its impact on heart health.
Rice milk is a suitable dairy alternative for people with allergies, but it is one of the least nutritionally beneficial plant-based milk drinks available. It is very low in protein and fat, but high in carbohydrates, so it's unsuitable for people with diabetes.
One positive characteristic of rice milk is that it is made with brown rice, which has benefits for heart health.
The world of plant-based milk is growing, with new varieties being added to the market all the time.
Less commonly available plant-based milk drinks are made from cereals like corn and spelt, pseudo-cereals like quinoa and amaranth, and legumes like peanut, lupin, and cowpea. Other nut and seed milks include pistachio, walnut, sesame, flax, and sunflower milk.
Many plant-based milk drinks are easy to make at home. It's a toss-up: store-bought varieties are often enriched or fortified, so homemade versions lack additions like calcium and vitamins that mimic the nutritional composition of dairy; however, when you make them yourself, you're also leaving out preservatives and thickening agents.
If choosing homemade versions, it’s important to ensure sufficient calcium and vitamin D intake from other sources, such as leafy green vegetables and pulses.
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