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Sharp Health News

Are plant-based milks healthy?

Aug. 27, 2021

Plant-based milk

Plant-based milks have risen in popularity in recent years with many nondairy options for people to choose from. But what exactly are these alternatives to cow’s milk and are they healthy?

“There are many reasons why nondairy milks are a popular choice,” says Jamie Downs, a registered dietitian with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers. “It could be that it’s something new to try; the variety of flavors, including soy, almond, hemp seed, oat; the nutritional benefits; or the perfect alternative for consumers who are lactose intolerant.”

How are these alternative milks made?
Most plant-based milks go through the same process to create them. They start by soaking the nut, seed, grain or fruit (coconut) in water. This base is then blended into a puree and filtered to remove the solid material, leaving only the liquid. The final step is to add any vitamins, minerals, flavoring and water to create the finished product consumers see.

Are plant-based milks nutritious?
They can be. Plant-based milks are all a little different nutritionally. Because they all come from a different base (nut, seed, grain or fruit), there are different nutritional values and additives. For example, in one product, a company might fortify the plant milk with higher levels of calcium and vitamin D than in other products. It’s important to read the nutrition labels to find a product that fits what you’re looking for.

How do they compare to cow’s milk?
Most plant-based milks are fortified with nutrients to try to better match cow’s milk. Soy milk is the most similar to skim cow’s milk for many of the key nutrients. Cow’s milk has long been associated with strong bones and prevention of osteoporosis later in life; soy milk has all of these same nutrients to support this claim too.

Are there are any disadvantages with alternative milks?
While there are many benefits of plant-based milks, there are some cons to be aware of. Many plant-based milks are low in protein when compared to cow’s milk so it wouldn’t be an adequate single source of protein in a meal. Another disadvantage of plant milks is some have added ingredients that aren’t beneficial for good health, such as added sweeteners. The recommendation is to look at the nutrition facts to choose a plant-based milk with little to no added sugars.

How do the different types of plant milks compare?
Soy milk and pea milk provide the most protein. Rice milk and almond milk are lowest in calories. Oat milk and rice milk are highest in carbohydrates. Part of oat milk’s popularity is its creamier flavor compared to other plant-based milks. Also, nutritionally, oat milk and whole cow’s milk are very similar.

So, which one is the best?
There isn’t a clear winner. The answer depends on your individual dietary needs, restrictions, concerns, budget and application. “But I encourage you to give these new plant-based milks a try,” says Downs.

Read more about plant-based milks and children’s health.

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