The rise of plant-based milk has been unstoppable in the past few years as more and more people are looking for dairy alternatives, some for health reasons such as food allergy & sensitivity and concerns for growth hormones & antibiotics in cow’s milk, others for ethical and environmental reasons. Soy & coconut milk have been around for ages, and then we see the sudden emergence of almond milk which became the next powerful “superfood”, followed by various nut “mylk” made of cashew, hazelnut, macadamia and so on, then hemp, flax, pea… Until most recently oat milk has become the star of the show which everyone on the internet is raving about.
In this post, I’ll talk about how dairy and dairy alternatives compare on their nutrition values and environmental impact, how the plant based milk market shifted, the rise of oat milk, and my thoughts on how to make the best choice for you.
- How Do They Compare Nutrition-wise?
Before I show you my comparison, here’re a few points that you should be aware as a consumer when comparing milk and various milk alternatives:
- There’re numerous websites that compare the nutrition values of cow’s milk vs. plant-based milks. Be cautious that these websites may represent different interests making their reviews biased;
- There’re countless brands and varieties in the market now, not to mention skim vs. whole, sweetened vs. unsweetened, and flavoured vs. “original”… So be aware of these and know how to make a fair comparison;
- Sometimes the QUALITY matters more than the QUANTITY when it comes to nutrition (e.g. the type of fat, sugar and protein could matter more than simply the amount);
- Many comparisons focus on macro-nutrients (carb, fat, protein) leaving out the micro-nutrients.
- Store-bought dairy alternatives usually contain ingredients like stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, and flavourings (including in “original” flavour) to make the product more stable and palatable (and cheaper) – almond milk isn’t just almond + water (read the label!), and there’s really very minimal amount of almonds that make up a glass of almond milk – why not just snack on some whole roasted almond instead and get more out of it?
- Note that cow’s milk must be fortified with Vitamin D in Canada. While it is not mandatory to fortify plant-based milk, some dairy alternatives are fortified with vitamins and minerals but others are not, making it even harder to compare different products and brands.
Here’s my own comparison on some major brands that you can find in Canada:
As you can see, the nutrient contents in plant-based milks vary a lot. Some people drink milk for the protein content, others drink for the Vitamin D and Calcium for bone health, or perhaps just for the taste (as in in coffee & tea). So you get to decide what’s important for you. Looking at various reviews online and my own comparison, soy milk is one of the best options among plant-based milks in terms of a well-balanced nutrition profile.
Soy milk has comparable protein, vitamin D and calcium contents as cow’s milk, and also considerably less total carbohydrate and sugars (if unsweetened). Now, some people may be worried about the phytoestrogen content in soy products – that’s a whole other topic that I may cover on another day. Of course, preference on taste and concern on allergen and GMOs and many other factors may also steer some people away from soy milk.
- The Environmental Impact
Here’s an interesting article by the BBC on how dairy alternatives may have a larger impact than you might’ve thought on our environment.
It is also reported that the growing demand of almonds (largely for the production of almond milk) is causing bees to die at a staggering rate. What does almond have to do with bees? Well, it’s because almond farmers in California are using commercial beekeepers to pollinate their almond groves. California is the world’s largest supply for almond (they represent 80% of the global almond supply) – farmland devoted to almonds in California has skyrocketed from 200k acres 20 years ago to over 1.5 million acres today. Due to monoculture and heavy use of pesticides, the bees are dying. According to an investigation by The Guardian, “commercial beekeepers lost 50 billion bees during the winter of 2018-19. That’s a loss of over one third of all commercial bee colonies in just a single season.”
- How Did the Market Shift?
This CNBC article shows several interesting charts on how the dairy and non-dairy milk market shifted, and the market share of key dairy alternatives in 2019.
The Vegan Society created a chart that shows an estimate and forecast of the global dairy alternative market
And here’s another article that shows the growth and trends of dairy alternatives. They also produced an interesting graph that shows the market share of plant based milk based on geographical regions on a global scale.
Just dumping some data here… it’s truly fascinating how much dairy alternatives have evolved in recent years. I remember growing up my parents would made me drink a full glass of milk every day and I hated it – at the time, everybody knew how milk can be great for bone health and help kids “grow taller and stronger”, but no one knew much about lactose intolerance, casein/whey sensitivity and even milk allergies. Also, growing up in China, shelf-stable UHT milk was the most common back then, and now there’re many options for refrigerated pasteurized milk in grocery stores there.
And now, all of a sudden there’re tons of websites, books, and podcasts that demonize the image of dairy milk and advocate dairy alternatives. It’s really not the cows’ fault that we humans can’t digest cow’s milk well, right?! Especially when we stuff them with antibiotics and hormones and treat them poorly.
- Is Oat Milk the Next Big Thing?
Allergen-friendly: Oat milk is free of major allergens, unlike dairy, soy, coconut and other nut milks, making it a good option for those who suffer from these allergies. Even though it has a lower protein content than cow’s milk & soy milk, it has other advantages to offer, including the lower environmental impact, lower cost, and…
The Taste: It also has a neutral taste and creamy mouthfeel that’s as close to cow’s milk as it can be (I don’t like the metallic and grassy taste of soy and hemp milks or the watery mouthfeel of almond milk).
Canada’s Choice?: According to the CBC, “In the last year alone, sales of oat milk have increased more than 250 per cent (in Canada), while sales of soy, coconut and rice milk have gone down. Oat milk now claims 3% of refrigerated non-dairy beverage sales.” This may be due to the fact that if you buy oat milk in Canada, chances are that they are made with Canadian grown oats and Canadians are starting to take pride in it!(Saskatchewan is the province that produces the most oats in Canada.)
Baristas’ Choice: Surprisingly, oat milk foams just like cow’s milk and can be very stable and produce consistent results when making milk froths for lattes. Interestingly, the rise of oat milk in North America started from the acceptance among baristas and the emerging independent cafe scene. Here’s an interesting video on how it all started. Kudos to Oatly! – what an interesting way to bring a new product to the already saturated market.
- Here’re My Thoughts
- Choose dairy or alternatives that best suit your health goal (I found cow’s milk worsen my GI symptoms, including A2 milk, so I try to eliminate cow’s dairy);
- Switch it up occasionally instead of sticking to one product all the time so that you’re not missing out on any nutrient. And it’s also good to try new things!
- Consider the environmental impact;
- Compare different products not only on the nutrient values but also the ingredient list – you may be surprised what you find there!
- Caution for what’s NOT shown on the product labelling (antibiotics, hormones, GMO, fertilizers, pesticides, manufacturing aids…)
- You don’t have to incorporate milk or milk alternatives in your everyday diet. In fact, the latest Canada’s Food Guide published in 2019 by Health Canada left out the recommendation for dairy products entirely (I’m sure it caused some industry lobbying). There’re plenty of foods that offer the same or more nutrients – instead of drinking almond milk, eat a handful of roasted almonds; instead of drinking soy milk, eat tofu or fermented miso; many dark leafy greens are rich in calcium and mushrooms are a good source of Vitamin D… the options are endless.
- Making your own plant based milk once in a while can be fun and rewarding – it may also look and taste very differently than what you get in grocery stores! I’ve made black sesame milk, soy milk, cashew milk, and a sweet rice + peanut milk blend!
REFERENCES & RESOURCES:
- White gold: the unstoppable rise of alternative milks https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/29/white-gold-the-unstoppable-rise-of-alternative-milks-oat-soy-rice-coconut-plant
- 5 charts that show how milk sales changed and made it tough for Dean Foods to avert bankruptcy https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/13/5-charts-that-show-how-milk-sales-have-changed.html
- A growing plant milk market https://www.vegansociety.com/news/market-insights/dairy-alternative-market
- Comparing Milks: Almond, Dairy, Soy, Rice, and Coconut https://www.healthline.com/health/milk-almond-cow-soy-rice#Milk-and-milk-alternatives
- Climate change: Which vegan milk is best? https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46654042
- Nutritionally speaking, soy milk is the best plant based milk https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/nutritionally-speaking-soy-milk-best-plant-based-milk-284229
- Climate change: Which vegan milk is best? https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46654042
- The World’s Almond Milk Craze Is Killing Bees at a Staggering Rate https://www.mensjournal.com/food-drink/industrial-almond-farming-killing-bees/
- ‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
- From oat field to coffee shop: The latest non-dairy star is grown in Canada https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/oat-milk-trend-benefiting-saskatchewan-canada-1.5325171