Plant-based milks or milk alternatives have been exploding in popularity recently with so many options from soy, to rice, to oat, to almond and beyond. Many people choose them for ethical reasons due to concerns about dairy farming practices. Others choose them for health reasons, including lactose intolerance. And many choose plant-based milks because they are simply better for the environment than cow’s milk.
Dairy farming takes a huge toll on the environment. Not only do cows produce methane gas (a powerful greenhouse gas), it also takes a lot of fossil fuels to run a dairy farm, a great deal of water, and a lot of land which leads to deforestation and even soil erosion (although there are farming techniques that can prevent erosion).
Farming of plants generally takes less of a toll on the environment, which is why reducing our meat and dairy consumption or opting for a completely plant-based diet is a great option in terms of reducing our environmental footprint.
That said, when it comes to milk there really is no comparison to cow’s milk, which is an incredibly nutritious food source. That doesn’t mean you have to drink cow’s milk to be healthy. Not at all. Even dietitians agree that a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy and nutritious. However, if you’re new to a plant-based diet, cutting out cow’s milk does mean that you have to rethink where your nutrients are coming from.
Dairy milk is a great source of vitamin D! Except… not naturally. Since the 1930’s, all cow’s milk in Canada has been fortified with vitamin D by law. The law was originally introduced to combat rickets - a debilitating bone condition caused by a lack of calcium. Vitamin D is really good at helping the body absorb calcium, so adding it to milk made a lot of sense. Since vitamin D can be difficult to get, especially in places like Canada where we have such long winters, many people get most of their vitamin D from milk and other fortified dairy products.
However, this law only applies to cow’s milk. Some plant-based milks may have added vitamin D, but it isn’t a requirement and many simply do not. That said, this is 2020 and not 1930. Overall, our diets are much better today and we have much wider access to diverse foods throughout the year. Rickets isn’t much of a concern anymore in Canada, but we do still have to pay attention to our vitamin D intake. If you avoid all animal products in your diet, look for plant-based milks that are fortified as well as fortified cereals and juices. Certain mushrooms are high in vitamin D as well, so check labels. And of course, there are always supplements to keep your supply up.
Because plant-based milks come from a variety of sources - soy, rice, almonds, oats and more - their nutrient content can vary widely. Also, some brands will fortify their products with essential nutrients (“essential” meaning our bodies don’t produce them and we need to get them from external sources) while others won’t.
Many brands contain just as much calcium, protein, potassium and other awesomeness as cow’s milk, but some are seriously lacking, which can be especially concerning for children. If you’re consuming plant-based milks for their nutrients, you need to be vigilant about checking labels.
Plant-based milks have come a long way in recent years and are pretty darn good! But, for a long time, they weren’t great. Now that they’re more popular and there’s much higher demand, they’re getting better and better. But there’s one holdover from the early days that’s still sticking around: added sugar.
Adding sugar is a great way to make so-so food taste really good. And this is exactly what’s done with many plant-based milks. Most notably, the flavoured ones, but also the “plain” ones. That said, most brands make an unsweetened (and delicious) version, but you have to check labels to be sure you’re getting the right one. If you’re ok with the added sugar (it does make for yummy smoothies) that’s great. But if sugar is a concern for you, check labels.
It’s been a bit doom-and-gloom until now, but there’s one really big nutritional positive when it comes to plant-based milks: most are naturally free of cholesterol! Dairy milk - especially high fat dairy milk - can be problematic for people concerned about their cholesterol levels. Not so with plant-based milks. Soy, rice, almond, hemp, coconut and so on are all free of cholesterol (unless anything has been added to the end product that contains cholesterol).
That said, fat free and low fat dairy milk, while not 100% cholesterol free, are very low in cholesterol.
Cashew milk, for example, is naturally rich in vitamin K, oat milk is a good source of riboflavin, and some fortified plant-based milks can actually contain even more calcium than cow’s milk! But, once again, it’s important to read labels.
Making plant-based milks at home is not as difficult as you might think, but one thing you will definitely need is a good blender. Preparation for each kind will depend on what ingredients you’re using, but in most cases, the primary ingredient is ground into a powder then blended with water and other flavourings. There are some great recipes here for trying different plant-based milks on your own.
Just keep in mind that, unless you’re adding other nutrients yourself, homemade plant-based milks will not be fortified with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, potassium, etc. We need these nutrients to maintain strong, healthy bodies, so make sure you’re getting them from other sources.
The bottom line? Reading labels is key. Choosing plant-based milk alternatives is a great choice to make for the environment, especially if you make them yourself to reduce packaging, but you do need to keep your own health in mind. Opt for fortified products and look for alternative sources of any nutrients you may be leaving behind. Be a hero. A well-fortified hero!
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