Sales of plant-based dairy have recently been on the rise, as a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative to dairy milk, resulting in an industry worth almost £400 million annually.
But this week, Professor Ian Givens, director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at the University of Reading, warned that it may not be as beneficial to us as we thought.
Young women in particular, he said, often deprive themselves of vital nutrients such as iron, calcium, iodine and even protein by substituting cow’s milk for alternatives.
“There have been cases where young children have been switched to these products and have developed a type of protein deficiency that was not expected in Western society,” said Professor Givens.
Experts compare the nutritional value of animal and plant products – like Mighty Pea M.lk (pictured)
Although plant milks are often fortified with nutrients like calcium, there is no legal requirement for manufacturers to do so – and research has shown that fortified calcium may not be as easily absorbed by the body as the calcium naturally found in cow’s milk.
Professor Givens called for better comparisons of animal and plant products in terms of their nutritional value, as well as carbon emissions. How does milk compare? We asked the experts. . .
This has become popular in the US over the past decade and began being sold by Whole Foods and Sainsbury’s here in 2019. Pea protein is extracted from soaked yellow peas, which are then mixed with water and sunflower oil.
Taste: It is described as rich and “a little chalky”.
Nutritional content: Mighty Pea M.lk (hollandandbarrett.com, £1.56) contains 1.9g of fat per 100ml, 0.7g of carbohydrates, 3.2g of protein and 186mg of fortified calcium.
Manufacturers claim: “It’s sugar-free and 50 percent more calcium than cow’s milk,” says Mighty Pia.
Expert judgment: Added calcium won’t necessarily be beneficial, says David Starr, a Harley Street nutritionist. Calcium is absorbed more efficiently in smaller doses – a massive amount that will travel right through you.
Pea milk is complete protein, says dietitian Francesca Lancaster, “meaning it contains all the essential amino acids, like dairy and soy milk.” But this is not a substitute for protein in the diet from sources such as chicken, eggs and beans.
Nutritionist Francesca Lancaster said that soybeans provide a good protein equivalent to dairy, but soy contains compounds that can lead to mood swings if consumed in large quantities.
The original alternative to plant-based milk, believed to have originated in 14th century China, soy milk is made by soaking and grinding soybeans, then boiling the mixture and filtering the residue.
Taste: Mild and sweet.
Nutritional content: T.It is most similar in terms of nutrients to dairy milk, Alpro Chilled Soy Drink (tesco.com, £1.50) contains 4g protein per 100ml (compared to 3.5g per 100ml in full-fat dairy), 2g fat (dairy has 3.7 g), 120 mg calcium (124 mg in dairy) and 5 g carbs (dairy has 4.7 g).
Manufacturers claim: Alpro says its drink is “free of artificial colours, flavors, and preservatives, and it tastes great.”
Expert judgment: “Soy provides a good protein equivalent to dairy,” says Francesca, but adds, “Soybeans contain compounds called isoflavones that combine with receptors in the body to impair estrogen activity. If consumed in large quantities, this can lead to mood swings and weight gain.” Research Inconsistent as to how much soy milk is causing hormonal disruption, so I’ll stick to drinking it in moderation.
Soy has also been found to disrupt the production of thyroid hormones. An underactive thyroid can lead to fatigue and depression.
Francesca said the higher sugar content in oat milk compared to other plant-based milks isn’t much higher than dairy milk, but dairy products contain protein and fat to balance it out.
Developed in the 1990s by Swedish scientist Rikard Ost, oat milk has recently surpassed soy as the best-selling vegetable milk. Grind the oats, then stir in warm water and grind to a slurry, heat until it thickens, mix and drain.
Taste: thicker texture than most; It tastes like cow’s milk.
Nutritional content: Whole Oats Drink (ocado.com, £1.40) contains 2.8g of fat per 100ml, 6.6g of carbohydrates, 1g of protein and 120mg of fortified calcium.
Manufacturers claim: “Consumers are showing a preference for the taste and function of oat milk over most plant-based alternatives,” says Bjorn Ost, co-founder of Oatly.
Expert judgment: “The higher sugar content of oat milk — in the form of carbohydrates — compared to other plant-based milks is not much higher than dairy milk, but dairy products contain protein and fat to balance it out,” says Francesca. Since some types of oat milk are only water and carbohydrates, they can spike blood sugar levels, which can lead to fatigue, headaches, and food cravings.
Even with six percent almonds, the Plenish version of the almond drink (pictured) contains only about a third of cow’s milk protein, said Harley Street nutritionist David Starr.
Produced in California since the 19th century. Almonds are soaked and ground in water before filtering the pulp.
Taste: Nutty, watery.
Nutritional content: Plenish 6% Organic Almond Free Drink (Sainsbury’s, £1.50) contains 3.1g of fat per 100ml, 0.4g of carbs and 1.3g of protein.
Manufacturers claim: “Each cup is packed with protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to give you a boost of energy, make your skin glow, and help protect heart health.”
Expert judgment: “It’s more like water than milk,” David says. Even with six percent almonds, Plenish’s version contains only about a third of cow’s milk protein, which, David says, “can lead to muscle wasting and hormonal disruption, leading to problems around your period.”
David said that rice milk is one of the best alternatives because it is high in carbohydrates – a source of brain fuel
The first rice milk factory was built in California in 1921. The grains are squeezed through a mill, filtered and mixed with water.
Taste: Sweet and watery. Oils can be added for a creamier texture.
Nutritional content: The original Alpro Rice Drink (ocado.com, £1.45) contains 12 percent rice and contains 1g of fat per 100ml, 9.5g of carbohydrates, 0.1g of protein and 120mg of fortified calcium.
Manufacturers claim: Albro says its rice milk is “easy to digest” and “naturally low in fat.”
Expert judgment: “One of the best alternatives because it’s high in carbohydrates – your brain’s fuel source,” says David. “But fat is also an essential nutrient, and a way to carry vitamins that rice milk lacks.” And as with all calcium-fortified plant milks, he says, “it will pass through your body quickly without cow’s milk containing the protein.”
David says many clients come to him with calcium and vitamin D deficiencies after their families switched to dairy-free milk: “They’re at risk for osteoporosis.”
David said he was concerned about the lack of protein in products like Morrisons’ Coconut Drink (pictured)
Coconut milk has been used in Asian cooking for centuries, and coconut milk has only become popular as an alternative to cow’s milk in the past decade. The “meat” of the coconut is grated to extract a milky liquid and heated, sometimes with the addition of water.
Taste: Creamy, sweet.
Nutritional content: The only milk with a lot of saturated fat like whole cow’s milk, Coconut Milk (1 liter, 1 pound) is fortified with vitamins B12, D2 and calcium, and has 0.3g protein, 120mg calcium and 2g carbs.
Manufacturers claim: “Refreshingly delicious.”
Francesca said that the protein content of potato milk is very low
Expert judgment: “It’s good for satiety,” says Francesca, although David worries about its popularity among people who follow a high-fat, sugar-free diet: “My main concern is a lack of protein.”
Launched by Swedish brand Dug last year, Potato Milk, currently available online, will be stocked at Waitrose from next month. Potatoes are heated and emulsified with rapeseed oil. Milk contains six percent of potatoes, as well as pea protein and dandelion fiber.
Taste: It is said to have a “salty taste”.
Nutritional content: Per 100 ml, 1.5 g fat, 4.4 g carbs, 1.3 g protein, 120 mg calcium. Also fortified with vitamins D and B and folic acid.
Manufacturers claim: “The most sustainable alternative.”
Expert judgment: “The protein content is still very low,” says Francesca, while David adds, “Although its sustainability would be strong, cow’s milk has nutrients that are hard to get anywhere else.”