Vegan milk: everything you need to know
Vegan milks are made from a variety of plant foods. The most common sources are soy, almond, and oat. They can also be made from rice, coconut, potato, hemp, cashews, and much more.
For vegans, plant-based milks are excellent alternatives to cow’s milk. Yet, veganism is not the only explanation for people choosing to drink vegan milk. Plant-based milks are cruelty-free, healthy, and deemed more flavorful than regular milk by many consumers.
Why is vegan milk consumption increasingly prevalent among the population? Are plant-based milks good alternatives to cow’s milk? How do they differ from one another?
Finding our way around vegan milks can be rather overwhelming. So, here’s everything you should know regarding plant-based milks and how to pick the best one for you.
Disclaimer: for better readability and to avoid any confusion, when referring to plant-based beverages, the words beverage and milk will be used interchangeably.
Why choose vegan milks?
Vegan milks are more environment friendly
Animal-based foods have a more harmful impact on the environment than plant-based food. Raising livestock requires extensive quantities of energy and water while producing high quantities of methane emissions and animal waste.
Furthermore, most plant-based milks require less water than dairy milk. Plant-based milks such as oat milk and soy milk are the most sustainable options in terms of water use. Overall, although current data still is limited and conflicting on this topic, we know for sure that producing vegan beverages, including almond milk and rice milk, requires less water than cow’s milk.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cattle milk is responsible for 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Comparatively, plants used for milk alternatives produce three times less carbon dioxide than cow’s milk.
In sum, switching to plant-based milk undeniably lowers our carbon footprint.
Balanced nutritional content
Most non-dairy milks are lower in calories, fat, and sugar than dairy milk. Most plant-based kinds of milk have less than half of the dairy milk’s fat content.
There is 3.3g of saturated fat in 1cup of partly skimmed milk, whereas almond milk and soy milk have none. Saturated fats contribute to elevated cholesterol and increased risks of adverse cardiovascular outcomes.
Also, most unsweetened vegan milks are low in sugar, with less than 3g per cup, compared to 12g in cow’s milk.
One of the key recommendations of the newest Canadian Food Guide is to prioritize plant-based foods due to their health benefits. One of the ways to increase our consumption of plant-based products is to substitute animal milk with plant-based milk.
Vegan milks are cholesterol-free
Cholesterol in the diet is found in animal products, while plant-based foods, including vegan milks, are cholesterol-free.
High circulating cholesterol in the blood can contribute to higher risks of heart disease and stroke. Eating low levels of dietary cholesterol is one of the ways we can keep our blood cholesterol within the normal range.
Other lifestyle changes can also contribute to normal cholesterol levels.
Connect with a vegan dietitian to learn how to maintain your blood cholesterol within healthy limits.
Vegan milks are allergy friendly
Plant-based milks are suited to people with milk allergy or lactose intolerance. Furthermore,vegan beverages such as almond milk and rice milk are well tolerated by individuals with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues.
In sum, the wide variety of vegan milks now available allows nearly everyone to find the plant-based milk best suited to their demands. There are numerous known benefits to drinking vegan milks and many benefits are still being uncovered by research. To know how vegan milk can contribute to your health, reach out to my team of vegan dietitians.
Types of vegan milks
Soy milk has been used in some countries for centuries. It is made from ground soybeans and is the most popular plant-based milk.
Soy milk has a great nutritional profile.
First, among non-dairy milks, soy milk provides the most protein, with about 8g per cup which is equivalent to traditional milk.
Furthermore, it contains all the essential amino acids and can help lower levels of ¨bad cholesterol¨ in the body. Soy milk is also a good source of essential fats which have a protective effect on cardiovascular health.
Overall, soy milk is an affordable and naturally nutritional and healthy vegan beverage.
Soy milk and risk of breast cancer
The old belief that isoflavones in soy foods increase the risk of breast cancer has been refuted by new scientific evidence.
According to recent studies, not only drinking soy milk does not lead to breast cancer, but it might have a protective effect against it.
Similarly, data indicates that soy does not affect fertility in men and has a protective effect on certain forms of cancer.
Almond milk is made of ground almonds and water and is naturally dense in nutrients.
First, it is a good source of vitamins, including vitamin E which cannot be produced by the body. Almonds are also high in calcium, magnesium, selenium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus and copper.
What’s more, almonds also have a lowering effect on cholesterol levels. Regular consumption of almonds is associated with lower blood lipids. Lastly, almonds are a source of antioxidants and can boost the immune system.
In sum, almond milk is a good source of calcium and healthy fats, making it a nutritious vegan milk.
Almond milk and allergies
Almonds are among the most common food allergens, i.e. milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, and sesame. Almonds fall under the tree nut category.
Coconut milk plays a significant role in many cuisines around the world.
It is high in fat and provides flavour and texture to meals. Coconut milk is also a good source of iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins C and E.
However, coconut milk is not a good source of protein and must be consumed in moderation due to its high saturated fat content.
First, oat milk is popular for its mild taste and creamy texture.
Further, oats have high nutritive value and are a good source of antioxidants. They are high in protein and contain dietary fibre, which contributes to increased satiety. Fibre is also known for its reducing effect on cholesterol.
On the other hand, oat milk is lacking in calcium and is more expensive than other plant-based beverages.
Is oat milk gluten free?
Oats are naturally gluten-free and safe for celiac disease and gluten-free diets. However, oat products often get cross-contaminated with wheat gluten during production. When looking for gluten-free oat, look for the gluten-free certification on the labels.
Which vegan milk is right for you?
Choose the most enjoyable beverage
As a vegan dietitian, I believe one of the most important criteria to consider when choosing the right plant-based milk is personal preferences. Choose the vegan milk that is the most pleasant to you.
Read the nutrition label
Reading the food label can be a great way to evaluate if a specific milk is tailored to your needs. Here is what to look for when reading the label, nutrition fact table, and ingredients list.
Choose fortified vegan beverages
Although plant-based milks have multiple health benefits, most are lacking in essential nutrients. Choose milks fortified with added calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
A word on homemade vegan milks
Homemade milks are usually simple to make, versatile, and delicious. However, they can be less nutritious, than fortified milks available at the grocery store.
If you are choosing to make your plant-based beverage at home, make sure you have other good sources of vitamin D, B12, and calcium in your vegan diet.
For more information on B12, check out my article on vegan food sources high in vitamin B12.
Choose beverages without added sweeteners
Choose unsweetened or original versions of your favourite vegan milk to limit added sugar. Refer to the nutrition label to know the sugar content in a regular portion.
On the nutrition fact table, a percentage of the daily value (%DV) of 5% and less is considered low, and 15% and more is considered high. For nutrients you want to prioritize such as vitamin B12 or fibre, look for the highest values. For nutrients you want to limit, such as added sugar, aim for the lowest values.
Prioritize beverages with the fewest ingredients
Some plant-based milks can have added flavours, colour, or other food additives, such as non-organic emulsifiers and gums.
Pick a vegan milk with few ingredients. This indicates that the beverage was minimally processed.
Select a vegan milk adapted to your nutrition requirements
Another thing to consider when choosing a vegan milk is the nutrient composition. For instance, soy milk is high in protein, while coconut milk is higher in saturated fat than most plant-based milks.
Similarly, some vegan milks have added sugar, although the sugar content is generally below what is found in cow’s milk.
Reach out to my team of vegan dietitians and let us help you choose the best non-dairy milk for you!
In summary, numerous nutritious and tasty vegan milk options are available at grocery stores nowadays.
To benefit from the best nutrition profile, choose fortified vegan milks for your daily consumption.
Furthermore, the taste, texture, and nutrient composition of vegan milks depend on the variety, the ingredients, and the brand.
While one milk may be wonderful for your morning latte, another may be more adapted to baking. Try different types and different brands of vegan milk to find your favourites!
Reach out to a vegan dietitian to know which vegan milk is the best choice for you, based on your nutrition goals, food allergies, and preferences.