Plant-Based Milk: Exploring Dairy-Free Milk Alternatives
Just like the ever-changing world of fashion and style, food trends often come and go throughout the years. We have seen a handful of these trends recently – from frothy instant coffee (dalgona coffee) during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to the infamous TikTok pasta that took the internet by storm. But one food trend that appears to be sticking around? Plant-based milk products! This market saw a 20% increase during 2020, equating to about $2.5 billion in yearly sales.1
Plant-based milk can be a wonderful addition to a balanced diet regardless of why you may choose this in place of traditional dairy milk. Some individuals may choose an alternative milk product due to symptoms of lactose intolerance such as bloating, nausea, diarrhea, or abdominal pain following the consumption of milk or other dairy-containing products. Research estimates that around 50% of all Americans have some degree of lactose intolerance.2 Others may choose these products for ethical or environmental considerations, such as those following a vegetarian or vegan diet or those looking for sustainable food options to include in their diet. This is a huge portion of the population, thus prompting many food manufacturers to produce alternative products. Long gone are the days in which consumers had few options, essentially only soy milk, coconut milk, or rice milk. Now, it seems like food manufacturers are constantly stocking the shelves with new dairy alternatives, leading to some consumer confusion as to what product is the “best choice.”
Before we look at the nutrient composition of a few options on the shelf, it is important to take an overview of other considerations to explore when shopping for these products.
Dairy farming can contribute to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, high freshwater and land usage, and eutrophication – a gradual increase in the concentration of minerals and nutrients that enter a water source.3,4 Each of these factors may negatively impact the environment but does that mean that non-dairy milk products are a better choice? It depends!
Our World in Data compared the environmental impact of dairy milk with that of oat milk, soy milk, almond milk, and rice milk.4 While dairy produced the most greenhouse gas, required the most land and water, and was responsible for the most eutrophication, the other options were not wholly environmentally friendly.4 To produce almond milk, for example, growers use approximately 59% of the water required for dairy farming.4 While this is less than what is needed for dairy, almond groves require a significant amount of water compared to other options, and many low-water crops have been converted to almonds due to their rise in popularity.4 In comparison, it takes about 5% of the amount of freshwater needed for dairy milk to produce soy milk.4 In terms of land use, oats, soy, almonds, and rice all require significantly less space to grow and produce compared to dairy farming.4 Rice milk, additionally, creates about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by dairy milk, while soy, oat, and almond milk produce even less.4
In all, there is a multitude of factors that contribute to the environmental impact of a specific food. The Environmental Working Group’s website provides detailed information on the sustainability of dairy and dairy alternatives. For more information, visit their website linked here.
Common Plant-Based Milk Additives and Their Purpose
- Carrageenan: Carrageenan is an ingredient derived from red seaweed and is often added to food products as a preservative or thickening agent.5 Carrageenan also emulsifies food products, making their texture more consistent and less apt to separate. This can be beneficial when creating nut milk to prevent the fat from separating from the water content. While everyone reacts to food additives differently, some research suggests that carrageenan may be triggering for those with irritable bowel syndrome.5 Additionally, carrageenan may lead to inflammation, subsequently increasing the risk of other complications.5 More research is needed to definitively say that carrageenan causes specific conditions, but note there is room for hesitancy regarding frequent, high intakes of this additive.
- Guar Gum: Guar gum is an ingredient derived from guar beans and is often added to food products as a thickener and binder.6 Guar gum is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) food by the FDA, meaning that the FDA allows for specified amounts of this ingredient in food products to maintain consumer safety.6 In plant milk, guar gum acts as an emulsifier to maintain a smooth consistency. Guar gum may also help slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream and aid in digestion as it contains soluble fiber.6 Some individuals, such as those with soy allergies, may be sensitive to guar gum.6 As with any other ingredient, moderation is important as some research suggests that a high intake of guar gum may be associated with negative health outcomes.6
- Gellan Gum: Gellan gum is another food additive that is used in place of gelatin to create specific textures in food products or to stabilize consistency.7 Gellan gum can be found naturally growing on some plants, like the lily pad, or can be synthetically created by fermenting bacteria with sugar.7 This synthetically derived gellan gum is primarily used in commercial foods as it can be produced on a mass scale. Unlike traditional gelatin, gellan gum is plant-based and therefore suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets.7 One benefit of this additive is that it helps to suspend fortified nutrients, such as calcium, in a food product or beverage.7 Gellan gum is widely considered to be safe, however, some preliminary animal-based research suggests that gums may impact gut health by increasing inflammation.8 More research is needed to definitively determine the extent to which this occurs in humans. Thankfully, only small amounts of gellan gum are required for it to be effective in food products, such as plant-based milk.
- Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is an FDA-approved additive that is used to stabilize or thicken foods.9 Produced by the fermentation of bacteria with sugar, xanthan gum contains soluble fiber and is often found in products like soups, juices, ice cream, sauces, and plant-based milk.9,10 Notably, xanthan gum is also used in industrial products such as paints, fungicides, tile, and cleaning agents.9,10 This isn’t necessarily uncommon as many ingredients can be used both in food and non-food items, and the amount of xanthan gum present in foods is generally small. However, a diet high in ultra-processed foods may displace other important nutrients and may result in poor health outcomes. Additionally, high amounts of xanthan gum in the diet may result in diarrhea, increased stool frequency, and gas.10 Those with severe corn, gluten, dairy, or soy allergies should avoid or use caution when consuming xanthan gum as sugars derived from these ingredients may be used during the fermentation process.10
You may have noticed that in recent years, food companies have started labeling plant-based milk products as “soy/almond/hemp beverage” rather than “milk.” This is because the FDA creates and maintains standards for food products and how they can be labeled. The FDA defines “milk” as the “lacteal secretion” that is obtained by “milking one or more healthy cows.”11 So, while almond milk (or other products) is colloquially called “milk,” you may see the word “beverage” on the label. Not to worry, though, the product inside has likely not changed!
Additionally, it is important to look at the Nutrition Facts panel when comparing plant-based milk products. Sweetened varieties will contain added sugar, typically from cane sugar. Unsweetened varieties will not have sugar added and therefore are often a better choice for most individuals.
Below you will find a nutrient breakdown for a few common unsweetened, plain plant-based milk varieties. Each variety below is fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D and values are representative of an 8 oz serving. Some individuals may choose to make their plant-based milk. Note that without fortification of vitamin D and calcium, homemade varieties are likely to contain little of these important nutrients. Additionally, there are often differences between brands and specific nutrient content may vary.
- Almond Milk:
- 30 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 2.5 grams fat
- 415 mg calcium, 90 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Almond milk is not suitable for those with an almond or tree nut allergy. Almond milk can be used in smoothies, baked goods, and as a creamer in beverages. Try it in our Apple Crisp Baked Oatmeal or Peanut Butter, Banana, & Cauliflower Breakfast Smoothie!
- Almond Milk:
- Cashew Milk:
- 25 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 2 grams fat
- 420 mg calcium, 90 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Cashew milk is not suitable for those with a cashew or tree nut allergy. Cashew milk can be used in smoothies or recipes and is a tasty substitute for creamer in coffee!
- Cashew Milk:
- Coconut Milk:
- 45 calories, 0-1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 4-5 grams total fat, 3-4 g saturated fat
- 95 mg calcium, 100 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Coconut milk is thicker than some of the other options listed. It has a distinctive coconut flavor and is often used in soups, curries, stews, and sauces. Not a fan of coconut? Have no fear! This milk takes on the flavor of other ingredients when used in a recipe. Give it a try in our Creamy Tomato Basil Chicken Skillet or Date Night Chocolate Mousse.
- Coconut Milk:
- Hemp Milk:
- 65 calories, 1-2 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrate, 5-6 grams fat
- 280 mg calcium, 90 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Hemp milk has a nutty flavor and contains about 1 gram of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids per 8 oz serving. Hemp milk is derived from the cannabis plant but is free from the psychoactive compound THC. Hemp milk can be added to smoothies, coffee, and other recipes in place of traditional dairy.
- Hemp Milk:
- Macadamia Milk:
- 50 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 5 grams fat
- 450 mg calcium, 100 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Those with a macadamia or tree nut allergy should avoid macadamia-containing foods. Macadamia nut milk is extra creamy, making it a delicious addition to beverages and baked goods.
- Macadamia Milk:
- Oat Milk:
- 120 calories, 3 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fat
- 350 mg calcium, 145 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Due to the high carbohydrate content of oat milk, this option may not be suitable for those with poor blood sugar control or those who are working to lower their blood sugar. Oat milk is often used in coffee as a replacement for creamer. Those with celiac disease should look for products that are certified gluten-free to ensure the product has not been cross-contaminated during processing.
- Oat Milk:
- Rice Milk:
- 115 calories, 1 gram protein, 22 grams carbohydrate, 2.5 grams fat
- 280 mg calcium, 100 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Due to the high carbohydrate content of rice milk, this option may not be suitable for those with poor blood sugar control or those who are working to lower their blood sugar.
- Rice Milk:
- Soy Milk:
- 70 calories, 7 grams protein, 3-4 grams carbohydrate, 3-4 grams fat
- 280 mg calcium, 110 IU vitamin D
- Uses and considerations: Those with soy allergies should avoid soy-containing foods. Soy milk is most comparable to traditional dairy milk due to its higher protein content. Soy milk can be added to smoothies, coffee, baked goods, curry, and cereals.*IU = International Units
Want more guidance on which option is best for you? Work with a professional! Our dietitians are here to help create a customized plan that meets your preferences and needs. Contact us at email@example.com to schedule an appointment today.