Why the plant-based milk in your coffee might not be as healthy as you think

Gone are the days when the most complicated choice you had to make in the milk section of the dairy aisle was reduced fat or whole. Now you’ll find carton after carton of dairy-type drinks made from foods you never thought you could “milk” – almonds, oats, rice, peas.

While cow’s milk is still the most popular according to retail sales, non-dairy alternatives are growing in popularity. These herbal alternatives are usually made by soaking the legume, nut, grain, or other main ingredient, then squeezing and straining the liquid, or “milk.” Many people prefer them because they want or should avoid dairy products, but some choose them because they think they are healthier than cow’s milk. Some experts are urging consumers to look beyond the hype and examine the nutrition label of these products, as some may not be as healthy as they appear.

Are plant milks good for me?

This will depend on the type of plant-based milk you drink, whether it’s fortified, how many added sugars it contains, and how well it fits into your general diet. You should not assume, for example, that plant milks contain the same nutrients as cow’s milk, even if the drink is white and has the same creamy texture. And some of the sweet versions may have more added sugar than a donut.

“In general, these non-dairy milks have been promoted as healthier, and that’s not necessarily the case,” said Melissa Majumdar, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cow’s milk is naturally high in protein, calcium, potassium, and B vitamins, and is often fortified with vitamin A (which is naturally found in whole milk) and vitamin D. Not all cow’s milk is.

And many do not provide enough of certain key nutrients like protein, potassium and vitamin D, Jackie Haven, deputy administrator of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), wrote in an email: “Usually these drinks don’t include all of the nutrients needed to replace dairy products. “

That being said, non-dairy drinks can be important alternatives for those who are allergic or intolerant to milk, or who avoid dairy products. And they can be part of a healthy diet as long as you pay attention to the Nutrition Facts label and make sure you’re getting the same essential nutrients you would normally get with real milk.

How do the different types of plant milks compare?

According to Spins, a market research company, the six most popular plant-based milks based on last year’s sales data are almond, oats, soy, coconut, peas and rice (excluding mixed versions, such as coconut kernel). Here’s how the original or unsweetened versions of each stack up on top of each other and whole milk in terms of taste, protein, calories, fat, and other attributes. (We used whole milk for comparison as it has become more popular in recent years, but keep in mind that USDA dietary guidelines recommend drinking low fat, skimmed versions rather than whole versions. All versions below contain calcium and vitamin D.)

Almond milk: This nutty-tasting drink is the most popular plant-based milk, according to Spins. One cup of the unsweetened version is only 37 calories – about a quarter of the amount in a cup of whole milk – and about 96% less saturated fat. But it doesn’t match cow’s milk (or raw almonds themselves) in terms of protein – it has roughly 1g of protein, compared to 8g found in whole milk. If you have a nut allergy, experts recommend avoiding almond milk as it can trigger an allergic reaction.

Oat milk: Sales of this thick, creamy drink have increased since last year, according to Spins, making it one of the fastest growing plant-based milks. A cup of the original version from the famous brand Oatly contains little saturated fat (0.5 g) and a little less calories than whole milk (120 versus 146), but contains 7 g of added sugars (plain milk n ‘does not contain any) and only 3 g of protein.

“If you are looking for the health benefits of oat milk, you had better eat oats,” said one expert. Photograph: Getty Images

One cup contains fiber – 2g – but Dr. Edwin McDonald IV, associate director of clinical adult nutrition at the University of Medicine of Chicago, said it wasn’t much. “If you are looking for the health benefits of oat milk, you had better eat oats,” he said. One cup of oatmeal, for example, contains twice as much fiber as a cup of oat milk. Fiber is important for gut health, blood sugar control, and weight maintenance.

Soy milk: When fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D, soy milk is the only non-dairy milk comparable to cow’s milk in terms of nutritional balance, according to US dietary guidelines. One cup contains 6g of protein, 105 calories and about 89% less saturated fat than whole milk. Made from soybeans, it has a consistency similar to cow’s milk and is a natural source of potassium.

“If you’re looking for a more nutritionally balanced milk substitute, then peas and soy will be the best,” said Dr. David Ludwig, endocrinologist and obesity researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital. While there have been concerns about estrogen-mimicking compounds called isoflavones in soybeans, there isn’t enough data to prove any harm or benefit. If you are allergic to soy, experts recommend avoiding soy milk.

Coconut milk: Made from grated coconut meat, coconut milk is naturally sweet and has around half the calories of whole milk, but low in protein (0.5g per cup). One cup contains 5g of saturated fat – about the same amount as whole milk – without healthy unsaturated fat. As with dairy fat, there are concerns that coconut fat may increase levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, said Alice H Lichtenstein, Gershoff professor of nutritional science and policy at Tufts University.

Pea milk: Sometimes called “vegetable protein milk”, this drink is made from yellow split peas. As with other vegetable milks made from legumes, such as soy milk, pea milk is high in protein (8g per cup) and the unsweetened versions contain about half the calories of whole milk and only half. gram of saturated fat. “My favorite non-dairy milk is pea milk,” said Dr. McDonald, who is lactose intolerant and a skilled chef. It is because of its protein and texture that it resembles cow’s milk – a bit creamy with a mild taste.

Milk rice: Made from brown rice, rice milk has a naturally sweet taste. It contains slightly fewer calories than whole milk (115 versus 146 per cup) and no saturated fat; however, it is very low in protein (0.7g per cup). Compared to other plant-based milks, “there does not appear to be any benefit from rice milk,” Professor Lichtenstein said.

The drink also contains fast-digesting carbohydrates, said Dr Ludwig, which can quickly convert to glucose, raising insulin and blood sugar levels – a potential concern for people with diabetes or those with diabetes. severe insulin resistance.

Are plant milks worth the money?

While the price of plant-based milks can vary widely, cow’s milk is often much cheaper. “Cow’s milk will be the cheapest,” said Majumdar. “But it has the most nutrients, so you get more for your money.” Christopher Gardner, a nutrition scientist and professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, however, said he found the higher price of plant-based milks to be worth it for animal welfare and environmental reasons. “I’ve never come across soybeans or belching peas,” he said, referring to methane emissions from cows. “If you’re an eco-warrior, it might be worth the cost.”

However, not all plant milks are ecological. It takes about 15 gallons of water to grow just 16 almonds; and most in the United States are grown in drought-stricken California. – New York Times

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