A Complete Guide To Plant Based Milk

Plant based milks are increasing in popularity and it’s certainly a good time to make the switch from dairy. You may be feeling a little overwhelmed as there’s so many types of plant milk to choose from. Don’t worry, we’ve got you. This guide takes you through the environmental impact, nutritional information and pros and cons of a range of plant based milks so you can make a more informed choice next time you’re at the supermarket.

Sometimes it’s a case of trial and error until you find the plant based milk type and brand that matches what you want. This guide should give you a very strong starting point. Enjoy!

Benefits Of Plant Based Milk

Plant based milk offers a range of health and environmental benefits. Most plant milk is fortified and offers a great source of B12 and calcium. This means you’re not missing out on anything when choosing plant milk instead of dairy. Below are some of the pros and cons of popular vegan milk options:

Pros & Cons Of Plant Based Milk Types

ProsCons
Almond Milk• Low in calories
• Easy to find in shops
• Rich in vitamins
• Usually fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium
• Smooth texture
• Mild flavour
• Low in carbs
• Low in protein
• Low in fibre
• A lot of water is needed to grow almonds
Oat Milk• Easy to find in shops
• Offers more protein than most plant-based milk (aside from Soy)
• More fibre than most other options
• Works well in hot drinks
• Versatile
• Higher in carbs than other options
Soy Milk• Easy to find in shops
• Good source of protein
• More fibre than most other options
• Usually fortified with Vitamin D and calcium
• Higher in calories than other options
• Higher in carbs than other options
• Common allergen
Coconut Milk• Easy to find in shops
• Low in calories
• Low in carbs
• Usually fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium
• No protein
• Strong flavour means it is less versatile
Rice Milk• Mild flavour
• Versatile
• Similar calories as fat-free cow’s milk
• Some brands are fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium
• High in carbs
• Very low protein
• Low in fibre
Hemp Milk• Rich in omega acids
• Low in calories
• Low in carbs
• High in protein
• Usually fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium
• Low in fibre
• Not as widely available as other options
• Has a distinct flavour that may not be everyone’s favourite
Flax Milk• Low in calories
• Low in carbs
• Rich in Fibre
• Usually fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium
• Low protein
• Can be heavily sweetened
Cashew Milk• Mild Flavour
• Low in carbs
• Low in calories
• Good source of potassium and Magnesium
• Versatile
• Usually fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium
• Low in fibre
• Low in protein
• Not usually offered in coffee shops
Hazelnut Milk• Good source of omega 3 fatty acids
• Good source of Vitamin E and B vitamins
• Low in calories
• Strong flavour may not be liked by everyone
• Low in protein

Nutritional Comparison: Cow’s Milk Vs Plant Based Milk

The table below from The Plant Based Cyclist (book) compares the nutritional value of non-dairy milks to cow’s milk. The information refers to a 240ml serving.

ProteinFatCarbohydratesCalories
Cow’s Milk (Whole)8g8g13g146 kcals
Soy Milk7-9g4-4.5g4g80-90 kcals
Almond Milk1g2.5g1-2g30-35 kcals
Coconut Milk4g45 kcals
Oat Milk2.5-5g4.5-5g19-29g140-170 kcals
Rice Milk1g2-3g27-38g130-140 kcals
Table from The Plant Based Cyclist

If you are looking for a plant based milk that provides similar protein levels to cow’s milk choose soy.

Why Avoid Dairy?

For the environment… Dairy milk products are responsible for 3x more greenhouse gas than plant milk. Researchers at the University of Oxford also showed that producing dairy milk required more land and water use than producing plant-based milks.

For the animals… Cows produce milk when they are pregnant or nursing their young, this means for cows to produce milk in a way that is profitable they need to be continuously pregnant. This isn’t natural for a cow so artificial insemination is necessary and once the calf is born it is taken away from the mother (otherwise the calf will drink the milk which defeats the whole point of breeding the cow so she produces milk in the first place). The male calves are often killed and the cows are killed when their milk production decreases.

I’m not going to go into this in detail now as there are many articles that discuss why you should avoid dairy for the sake of the animals. The bottom line is that dairy comes from cruelty and confinement, something many of us don’t want to support.

For your health… Dairy is a key source of saturated fat. Cows milk has been linked to a range of health issues including high cholesterol, ovarian cancer and acne. Avoiding dairy can help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease.

Is Plant Based Milk A Source Of Calcium?

Yes, you can get calcium from plant based milks including soy, almond and hemp milk. As a rough guide, a single serving offers:

  • Fortified Soy Milk – calcium 30%
  • Fortified Unsweetened Almond Milk – calcium 45%
  • Hemp Milk – calcium 25%

Is Plant Based Milks A Source Of Vitamin D?

Yes, you can get Vitamin D from plant based milks including soy and almond milk. As a rough guide, a single serving offers:

  • Fortified Soy Milk – Vitamin D 30%
  • Fortified Unsweetened Almond Milk – Vitamin D 25%

Which Plant Based Milk Is The Most Environmentally Friendly?

This is a hard question to answer but oat, hemp, hazelnut and soy milk find themselves at the top of the list. (This is only a rough guide).

Before we get into this, just know that any plant-based milk is a much more environmentally friendly than dairy milk.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,”

Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford told The Guardian.

Plant Milks Ranked From Most Environmentally Friendly to Least

  1. Oat Milk. Oats can be grown in cooler climates and oat production has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all plant milks.
  2. Hemp Milk. Hemp is a versatile plant that offers a lot of environmental benefits. As long as you choose hemp milk with hemp grown relatively locally it’s definitely an environmentally friendly option.
  3. Hazelnut Milk. Hazelnuts grow on trees and the trees are cross-pollinated by wind.
  4. Soy Milk. As long as you choose soy milk that uses organic soybeans that have been grown in Europe/ USA/ Canada rather than ones grown in the tropics Soy milk is fine. The issue with Soy is that soy production is linked to deforestation in the Amazon so know your sources before you buy.
  5. Coconut Milk – Coconut milk is sometimes linked to deforestation so if you choose this milk type make sure you select a Fair Trade brand.
  6. Almond Milk – Almonds need a lot of water to be produced making it less sustainable than other options. (It’s worth noting that it still needs less water than dairy milk).
  7. Rice Milk – It may be surprising to hear that rice milk produces the most greenhouse gases of all the plant milks making this one of the least environmentally friendly options.

Which Plant Milk Is Best For Hot Drinks?

Oat milk tends to be the best plant milk for use in hot drinks. It works well in coffee and tea and the brand Oatly also offer Oatly Barista that is made for use in hot drinks. If you’re avoiding gluten, try soya milk in your hot drinks.

Which Plant Milk Is Best For Smoothies?

Any plant milk will work in a smoothie. Go for a fortified plant milk and generally it can be an unsweetened variety as the fruit in smoothies often brings enough natural sweetness.

Which Plant Based Milk Is Best For Savoury Dishes?

It depends on the dish. Coconut milk is a go-to for many dishes such as green curry, satay sauce etc. Of course, coconut has a strong flavour so is only suitable for certain dishes. Unsweetened soya is often a good choice for creamy/ cheesy sauces and it offers a similar consistency to dairy milk making it a good option when finding vegan alternatives to use in recipes.

Which Plant Based Milk Is Best For Cereal?

My favourite milk for cereal is almond milk but oat, soya, hazelnut and cashew milk are also great choices. Hazelnut milk is great for cereals that include cacao while cashew milk is perfect for granola based breakfasts. If you’re making porridge, soya milk works very well.

Which Plant Based Milk Is Best For Baking?

Soya milk tends to be the best option and oat milk works quite well too.

Which Plant Based Milk Is Best To Drink On Its Own?

The best plant milk to drink comes down to personal preference. If you’re looking for one that is similar to dairy then go for soya or oat. If you want the milk to be creamy and nutty then go for hazelnut or cashew.

Which Plant Based Milk Is Best?

I’d recommend oat milk or soya milk as top level all-rounders. They are delicious, versatile and offer good nutritional value.

Sources:

The Plant Based Cyclist

https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:b0b53649-5e93-4415-bf07-6b0b1227172f
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46654042
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/

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