Any milk (plant or animal milk) is a very watery liquid, around 90 per cent is always water. Therefore, any amount of nutrients it contains is more or less diluted and any health effects depend on how much of it you drink.
Sugar with your milk?
As you can see in the comparison table, dairy milk has more sugar than most plant milks. Why is there sugar in plain dairy milk you ask? Milk sugar – lactose – is a natural component of milk. It’s a simple sugar, which means it breaks down fast and is quickly absorbed by your body in the same way as table sugar. On the other hand, unsweetened plant milks have almost no sugar and even the sweetened varieties are often sweetened with apple juice, which is better for you than sugar. On the sweet front, all plant milks are winners!
► Lowest in sugar: soya, almond and hemp milks
|Nutrients in different milks|
|Nutrient/100g||Dairy milk (semi-skimmed)||Soya milk||Almond milk||Oat milk||Hemp milk||Rice milk||Coconut milk|
|Total fat||2.0 g||1.7 g||1.1 g||0.5-1.5 g||2.8 g||1.0g||0.9-2.0 g|
|Saturated fat||1-1.3 g||0.3 g||0.1 g||0.1-0.2 g||0.3 g||0.1 g||0.9-1.9 g|
|Polyunsaturated (essential) fats||0-0.1 g||1.0 g||0.3 g||0.7 g||2.0 g||0.6 g||0|
|Protein||3-4 g||3.0 g||0.4 g||1.0 g||0.6 g||0.1 g||0.1-0.2 g|
|Sugar||5.0 g||0.1 g|
(sweetened – 2.4 g)
(sweetened – 3 g)
|4.1 g||0.1 g|
(sweetened – 1.8 g)
|Fibre||0.0g||0.5 g||0.4 g||0.8 g||0.5 g||0.3 g||0.1 g|
|Calcium||120 mg||120 mg||120 mg||120 mg||118 mg||120 mg||120 mg|
Dairy milk always contains saturated ‘bad’ fats which are a risk factor for heart disease. In that respect, coconut milk is similar as it’s the only type of plant milk that naturally comes with a higher saturated fat content. All the other plant milks have a very healthy fat profile. Hemp milk also comes with an extra dose of essential omega-3 fats, closely followed by soya with its healthy unsaturated fats. Rice, oat and almond milk have the absolutely lowest fat content.
► Lowest in fat: soya, almond, oat, hemp and rice milk
Protein levels vary and although dairy milk has about the same protein content as soya milk, cow’s milk proteins, casein in particular, are difficult for the human body to digest. In fact, they used to make furniture glue out of casein! Soya not only contains a good amount of protein but it’s better protein at that! Soya protein lowers cholesterol and may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
All the other plant milks contain little protein but that’s not an issue as milks of any kind aren’t among our major protein sources – unless you drink them by a gallon!
► Best for protein: soya milk
The amount of calcium you get from most fortified plant milks is the same as from cow’s milk. Not all varieties are fortified, so check the carton! Organic varieties are usually not fortified but most other plant milks are.
The calcium in dairy milk is why we’ve been told to drink the white stuff but it’s not the only nor the best source of this mineral! Other sources include green leafy vegetables, pulses, tofu, nuts and seeds (in particular almonds, sesame seeds and tahini), dried figs, oranges, fortified plant yoghurts and even granary bread.
► Best for calcium: all fortified plant milks
Roughage in your drink
All plant milks contain some fibre, which is essential to good health, whilst dairy milk never contains any. Fibre helps to keep your digestive tract healthy and can slow down sugar digestion. Soya, almond, hemp and oat milk are best for fibre but oat milk beats the others hands down.
► Best for fibre: oat milk
It takes 1,020 litres of water to produce one litre of cow’s milk. To produce the same amount of soya milk, you need 200-297 litres of water – and even less for other crops such as oats or hemp! Almonds drink a bit more but they’re certainly not the culprit behind California’s water crises, as some tabloids claimed – unlike livestock farms.
If you’d like to go for the most environmentally friendly options, choose milks made from locally grown crops – oats, hemp seeds, Spanish almonds, European soya. Research your favourite brand to find out where their ingredients come from! And don’t forget that organic varieties are also gentler on the environment so if your wallet allows, choose those.
Iodine is a trace element found in seawater, rocks and some types of soil. In the human body, it is essential for the production of the thyroid hormones and necessary for the development of the nervous system and cognitive abilities in infancy and childhood. Too much or too little iodine can throw our metabolism off balance.
The amount of iodine in plants depends on how much iodine is in the soil in which they grow. On the other hand, seaweed is always a good source as it absorbs iodine from seawater.
Cow’s milk contains iodine because cows get it in their feed but also as a result of iodine udder washes – not the most natural source! Some media articles warned that most plant milks lack iodine and as such are inferior to cow’s milk. Don’t be fooled – cow’s milk is not a major source of iodine and we can find this element elsewhere. Seaweed is a great source so vegan sushi, miso soup or nori sprinkles are a good bet. Kelp (kombu) can contain very high doses so proceed with caution or choose a kelp supplement that has a standardised iodine content so you know exactly how much you’re getting – an easy and cheap option. And as for plant milks – only very few are fortified with iodine so check the packaging!
And the winner is?
It’s impossible to pick which plant milk is the best. Ultimately, it comes down to taste because you’re most likely to stick with something you actually enjoy drinking! The truth is, all plant milks are not just more ethical and sustainable than cow’s milk, they’re also healthier.