Plant milks like oat, almond and soy milks are everywhere these days. From convenience stores to coffeeshops and even microbreweries, these trendy dairy alternatives are impossible to miss. And new varieties, like banana milk and potato milk, seem to be appearing every day.
“As a society, we’re exposed to more diversity in food now,” said Kimberly Spatola, registered dietitian at Novant Health Belk Heart and Vascular Institute in Elizabeth. “People are more open to trying new options and are experimenting to see what tastes good.”
In addition to flavor, many people opt for plant milks because they are unable to tolerate dairy. Others make the switch believing they are healthier — lower in fat, for example — than traditional cow’s milk. But, while “milks” made from vegetables, grains and fruits offer many health benefits, they also have some drawbacks.
We recently spoke with Spatola to learn all about plant milks, from how they’re made to what they taste like. (She even offered an oat milk recipe so you can make your own.) Read on to find out if these popular dairy alternatives are a good fit for your nutritional needs and lifestyle.
What are plant milks?
Plant milks are made from a wide array of nuts, seeds, grains and more. They can be used for cooking, poured over cereal, blended into smoothies, enjoyed by the glass or added to coffee or tea — the sky’s the limit.
“Plant milks are made by grinding or pulverizing the nuts, beans, seeds, grains or other ingredients,” Spatola said. “After blending this mixture with water, the solids are strained away, then flavorings and other ingredients are added.”
The most popular varieties, found in most grocery stores, include:
- Soy milk
- Coconut milk
- Rice milk
- Oat milk
- Almond milk
- Cashew milk
- Macadamia nut milk
- Hazelnut milk
- Pea-protein milk
- Flaxseed milk
- Sesame seed milk
- Hemp milk
These milks often carry a hint of flavor from their main ingredients. Coconut milk, for example, tastes slightly “coconutty.” Banana milk is naturally sweeter than soy, hazelnut or hemp milk, which all have a nutty flavor. Most people find oat, rice and potato milk to be the mildest varieties.
Why are plant milks so popular?
Health and wellness are a big driver of plant milk sales, as people try to limit their intake of unhealthy saturated fat or cope with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance. Others, like vegans and vegetarians, have chosen a more plant-based lifestyle, while some are concerned about animal welfare or the environment.
Environmentally speaking, evidence shows that all plant-based milks (including those made from water-hungry crops like rice and almonds) are more sustainable. In a 2018 study, researchers at the University of Oxford found that a glass of traditional dairy milk requires nine times more land — and results in nearly three times more greenhouse gas emissions — than non-dairy alternatives.
Registered dietitians help us make good decisions.
Plant milks also make good economic sense, according to Spatola. Many are sold in shelf-stable packaging, so budget-conscious shoppers can stock up on them when they go on sale and save refrigerator space by storing the cartons in the pantry. Once opened, refrigerated plant milk lasts longer, too.
How do plant milks compare to cow’s milk?
All cow’s milk contains unhealthy saturated fat to some degree. Not only does saturated fat raise your cholesterol, it is also thought to exacerbate inflammation, according to Spatola.
“Inflammation is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong and needs to be fixed,” she said. “If we don’t address the inflammation in our bodies, it can go unchecked and contribute to heart disease and other chronic conditions.”
Unlike dairy, most plant milks contain healthy, monounsaturated fat, like that found in olive oil. (The one exception is coconut milk, which does contain saturated fat.) Some varieties also provide heart-healthy omega 3 and other fatty acids, as well as fiber, which is not found in dairy.
“In order to compete with cow’s milk,” Spatola said, “plant milk manufacturers fortify their products with calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins — the main nutrients most people look for in dairy products — so we can still get those nutritional benefits.”
Do they contain protein?
When it comes to protein, unfortunately, most plant milks fall short. Surprisingly, this includes nut milks. In fact, almond and other nut milks are among the lowest in protein, with only about one gram of protein per serving.
“You’d think because almonds have protein, it would appear in almond milk,” Spatola said. “But so much water is used in the process of turning nuts and other foods into milks that their protein is simply diluted away.”
Because plant milks are nutritious, children can safely consume them as part of a healthy balanced diet. However, Spatola recommends only two protein-rich options to support kids’ growing bodies: unsweetened soy milk or pea-protein milk (specifically the brand Ripple).
Do plant milks have any other drawbacks?
Many plant milks are high in carbohydrates and lack the blood-sugar balancing protein found in dairy milk, according to Spatola. People with diabetes and others concerned about blood sugar or insulin levels may prefer to opt for protein-rich, unsweetened pea-protein or soy milk.
While soy raised concern in recent years as researchers questioned its potential role in raising the risk of certain cancers, no clear associations have been found between soy and breast cancer, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. In fact, the study showed a higher correlation between dairy milk and breast cancer.
People with nut allergies will want to avoid nut milks and blended plant milks made with nut milk. And if gluten is a concern, be sure to check labels carefully. While some plant milks are gluten-free, others could contain gluten or be cross-contaminated with it.
And when it comes to giving plant milks to pets? Be careful. Many contain ingredients known to be harmful to dogs, cats and other animals, so it’s best to check with a veterinarian first.
What should we avoid when buying plant milk?
“Ingredients will differ, and most of these are unlikely to make or break a plant milk’s nutrition profile,” Spatola said. “But there are two ingredients I would avoid — carrageenan and added sugars.”
Carrageenan is a popular additive that thickens plant milks and makes them more shelf stable. However, research has shown it may promote inflammation or be harmful to the gastrointestinal tract.
And added sugars have been linked to weight gain, fatty liver disease, and chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes. So why include them in plant milks?
“If you drink a glass of cow’s milk, you’ll notice it is inherently sweet,” Spatola said. “So, many of these products try to mimic that by adding sugar. Instead, I always recommend unsweetened, unflavored plant milks.”
These can be flavored at home with a touch of vanilla, cinnamon or cocoa powder — or you could try your hand at making all-natural plant milk at home, starting with the oat milk recipe below. Spatola also included a vegan pancake recipe to use the remaining ground-up oats.
Oat milk recipes
- 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
- 4 cups water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
- Combine oats and water into the carafe of a high-speed blender, and allow to soak undisturbed for 30 minutes.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the blender, and blend until completely smooth, about 1 minute.
- Place a cheesecloth over a bowl and strain the milk through the cheesecloth. Reserve pulp for alternative use.
- Transfer to a container and refrigerate for up to 5 to 7 days.
Nutrition (serves 4): 80 calories; 1 gram fat (unsaturated); 40 milligrams sodium; 14 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 3 grams protein.
Oat milk pulp pancakes (vegan)
- 1 1/2 cups oat flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 cup oat pulp
- 1 cup oat milk
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon avocado or canola oil
- In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and mix until just combined and no lumps remain.
- Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat.
- Add 1/2 tablespoon oil to pan and cook pancakes for about 1 to 2 minutes per side or until golden brown.
- Repeat cooking process with all remaining batter.
- Serve pancakes with fresh berries and pure maple syrup.
Nutrition (serves 6): 184 calories; 5 grams fat; 260 milligrams sodium; 30 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams fiber; 4 grams added sugars; 5 grams protein.
Are plant milks just another health-food fad?
Because plant milks have only recently surged in popularity and become widely accessible, you may be surprised to learn they’ve been around for millennia. In China, for example, soy milk was first used as a nutrient-rich dairy substitute 2,000 years ago.
And in Spain, according to historians, the popular plant-based beverage known as horchata was prepared with tiger nuts during the 8th century. (Modern-day horchata, particularly popular in Hispanic countries, may also be made from ground almonds, sesame seeds, rice, barley and/or cashews.)
“The coconut milk traditionally used for cooking — found in cans in supermarket aisles — is very different from the thinner ‘coconut milk’ beverage sold in refrigerated aisles today,” Spatola said.
Used for centuries (or more) In India and Southeast Asia, traditional full-fat coconut milk is also an integral part of South American and Caribbean cuisines.