Plant Based Milk Substitutes
I’m getting lots of questions about plant-based milks so I thought some guidance and clarification would be helpful. It seems more and more plant-based milk options are popping up. In addition to the more familiar almond, soy and coconut we now have rice, hemp, cashew, pea, oat, peanut, barley, quinoa, spelt and more.
Plant-based milks offer some good alternatives for people who want to avoid or limit their milk consumption. However, it is important to understand they are not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk. Only soy milk approaches the protein level of cow’s milk. Plant based milks don’t naturally contain significant amounts of calcium so they have to be fortified with calcium which makes them more like a calcium supplement than a food naturally containing calcium. The negative consequences of excess calcium, such as kidney stones, is only an issue with calcium supplements and not with calcium containing foods. So the same efforts to avoid too much calcium from supplements needs to be applied to calcium fortified foods such as plant based milks.
To make plant based milks the nuts, grains, seeds or legumes they are made from are, either soaked in water and ground, or ground and then soaked. The mixture is then strained to remove the solids. Then flavorings, sweeteners, nutrients, thickening agents and stabilizers are added. Finally, they are heat-treated. So the end product is nutritionally very altered from the starting plant food. Drinking Almond milk is not the same as eating a handful of almonds as there are very few almonds in almond milk. Much of the fiber from the plant sources is lost in the processing.
There are concerns about the arsenic levels in rice milk. One study found arsenic levels above the standard limit for drinking water in the 19 rice milks they tested.
Plant based milks have their place and can be very helpful to those who don’t like or tolerate milk or simply want to avoid animal products. Oat and Quinoa milk offer the advantage of being free of nuts, soy, dairy and gluten (assuming oat milk is made from gluten-free oats – check the label), which is good for people with allergies or sensitivities to these foods.
I include almond milk as an option in my Eating Plans but also allow substituting milk or other plant-based milks. Use only unsweetened plant-based milks, as the sweetened ones tend to have a lot of sugar. The calcium in plant milks is like a supplement so don’t over consume. Read the labels as the amount of calcium per serving varies significantly among brands. It seems many of the manufacturers are assuming more is better and adding a lot of calcium, which could be a problem if someone consumes too much.
I personally prefer to just use small amounts of cow’s milk for cereal or in cooking and to use fermented milk products such as kefir and yogurt in Smoothies. But if you don't tolerate milk or prefer not to drink milk then plant based milks give you some good options, as long as consumed in moderation.