The white stuff: Which plant milk is the most nutritious?

Read Time:   |  26th January 2018

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Veronika Powell from Viva! compares milks to see which ones really do have the white stuff… 

plant milk nutrition

The white stuff: Which plant milk the most nutritious?

As plant milks are rising in popularity, so is their critique. It usually comes from the dairy industry, desperately trying to convince people that nothing can possibly come close to cow’s milk. And they’re right! Plant milks are much better for you, more environmentally friendly and don’t cause any suffering!

But first, let’s have a proper look at what any milk (plant, cow’s, goat’s, human) actually is – a very watery liquid, around 90 per cent is always water. Therefore, any amount of nutrients it contains is more or less diluted and any health effects depend on how much of it you drink.

How much sugar?

Dairy milk contains five grams of sugar per 100 grams – that’s more than most plant milks, even the sweetened varieties! Why is there sugar in plain dairy milk you ask? Milk sugar (lactose) is a natural component of milk, so is always present. It’s a simple sugar, which means it breaks down fast and is quickly absorbed by your body in the same way as table sugar.

plant milk nutrition

On the other hand, unsweetened plant milks have almost no sugar and even the sweetened varieties are often sweetened with apple juice, which is better for you than sugar. As a rule of thumb, milks made from pulses, nuts and seeds are lower in natural sugars and grain milks are slightly higher – simply because of the carbohydrates in the plants.

The lowest in sugar: soya, almond and hemp milks

Fat focus

Dairy milk always contains saturated fats, which are a risk factor for heart disease. Regardless of sensationalist media stories, the advice to avoid saturated fats remains.

plant milk nutrition

In that respect, coconut milk is similar, as it’s the only type of plant milk that naturally comes with higher saturated fat content. All the other plant milks have a healthy fat profile and are very low in fat. Hemp milk is unique in that it also comes with an extra dose of essential omega-3 fats, closely followed by soya with its healthy unsaturated fats. Rice, oat and almond milk have the absolutely lowest fat content.

Lowest in fat: soya, almond, oat, hemp and rice milk

Protein parade

Protein levels vary and, although dairy milk has about the same protein content as soya milk, cow’s milk proteins, such as whey and casein, are difficult for the human body to digest. In fact, they used to make furniture glue out of casein!

Soya not only contains a good amount of protein, but it’s better protein at that! Soya protein lowers cholesterol and may reduce the risk of breast cancer. Other plant milks have less protein, but as milks are not usually the main source of protein in any diet, it’s not a big deal.

Best for protein: soya milk

Drink your calcium

The amount of calcium you get from most fortified plant milks is the same as from cow’s milk. However, not all varieties are fortified, so check the carton! Other dairy alternatives such as yoghurts and some desserts are often fortified too. The calcium in dairy milk is why we’ve been told to drink the white stuff, but don’t forget that cow’s milk also packs a good dose of hormones and pus by default. No one needs that! There’s plenty of calcium in fortified plant milks, sesame seeds, almonds, figs, green leafy vegetables etc.

Best for calcium: all fortified plant milks

Roughage in your drink?

All plant milks contain some fibre, which is essential to good health, while dairy milk never contains any. Fibre helps to keep your digestive tract healthy and can slow down sugar digestion. Soya, almond, hemp and oat milk are best for fibre, but oat milk beats the others.

Best for fibre: oat milk

Environmental impact

It takes 1,020 litres of water to produce one litre of cow’s milk. To produce the same amount of soya milk, you need 297 litres of water, and even less for other crops such as oats! Almonds drink a bit more, but they’re certainly not as thirsty as cows.

plant milk nutrition

In terms of using crops that are grown in Europe, oat and hemp milks are the best and have the lowest carbon footprint. But let’s not forget that Spain is a big producer of almonds and many European countries grow soya as well, so these two crops are environmentally friendly and sustainable too. Rice and coconuts have a bit further to travel, but they are still a better option than cow’s milk.

Cows milk vs Plant milk 

And the winner is?

It’s impossible to pick which plant milk is the best. Ultimately, it comes down to taste, because you’re most likely to stick with something you actually enjoy drinking!

The truth is, all plant milks are not just more ethical and sustainable than cow’s milk, they’re also healthier.

Written by

Veronika Charvatova

Veronika Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. Veronika has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.

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