From potato to pea, are the trendy new milks healthy or harmful?
Sales of plant milk, as a healthier, more environmentally friendly alternative to dairy milk, have soared recently, fuelling an industry worth almost £400 million a year.
But this week, Professor Ian Givens, director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at Reading University, warned they may not be as good for us as we have been led to believe.
Young women in particular, he said, are often depriving themselves of vital nutrients such as iron, calcium, iodine and even protein by swapping cow’s milk for substitutes.
‘There have been cases where young children were switched to these products and developed a kind of protein deficiency you wouldn’t expect in a Western society,’ said Professor Givens.
Experts compare the nutritional value of animal and plant-based products – such as Mighty Pea M.lk (pictured)
Although plant-based milks are often fortified with nutrients such as calcium, there is no legal requirement for manufacturers to do so — and research has shown that fortified calcium may not be as easy for the body to absorb as the calcium found naturally in cow’s milk.
Prof Givens called for better comparisons between animal-based and plant-based products in terms of their nutritional value, as well as their carbon emissions. So how do the milks compare? We asked the experts . . .
This became popular in the U.S. over the past decade and started being sold by Whole Foods and Sainsbury’s here in 2019. Pea protein is extracted from soaked yellow split peas, which are blended with water and sunflower oil.
TASTE: Described as rich and ‘slightly chalky’.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: Mighty Pea M.lk (hollandandbarrett.com, £1.56) contains 1.9g fat per 100ml, 0.7g carbohydrates, 3.2g protein and 186mg fortified calcium.
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: ‘Sugar- free and 50 per cent more calcium than cow’s milk,’ says Mighty Pea.
EXPERT VERDICT: The added calcium won’t necessarily be of benefit, says Harley Street nutritionist David Starr. ‘Calcium is most efficiently absorbed in smaller doses — an enormous amount will go straight through you.’
Pea milks do contain complete protein, ‘meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, like dairy and soy milk,’ says nutritionist Francesca Lancaster. ‘But this is no replacement for protein in the diet from sources such as chicken, eggs and beans.’
Nutritionist Francesca Lancaster said soy provides a good protein equivalent to dairy, however soybeans contain compounds that if consumed in large quantities can lead to mood swings
The original plant-based milk alternative, thought to have originated in 14th-century China, soy milk is made by soaking and grinding soy beans, then boiling the mixture and filtering out the residue.
TASTE: Mild and sweet.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: The most similar in terms of nutrients to dairy milk, Alpro’s Soya Chilled Drink (tesco.com, £1.50) has 4g protein per 100ml (compared with 3.5g per 100ml in full-fat dairy), 2g fat (dairy has 3.7g), 120mg calcium (124mg in dairy) and 5g carbohydrates (dairy has 4.7g).
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: Alpro says its drink is ‘free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives and tastes great’.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Soy provides a good protein equivalent to dairy,’ says Francesca, but adds: ‘Soybeans contain compounds called isoflavones that combine with receptors in the body to weaken oestrogen activity. If consumed in large quantities, this could potentially lead to mood swings and weight gain. Research is inconsistent as to how much of a hormone disruptor soy milk can be, so I’d stick to drinking it in moderation.’
Soybeans have also been found to disrupt the production of thyroid hormones. An underactive thyroid gland can lead to tiredness and depression.
Francesca said oat milk’s high sugar content compared with other plant-based milks isn’t much higher than dairy milk, but dairy has protein and fat to balance it out
Developed in the 1990s by Swedish scientist Rickard Oste, oat milk recently overtook soy as the bestselling plant-based milk. Oats are milled, then stirred in warm water and ground into a slurry, which is heated to thicken, blended and strained.
TASTE: Thicker texture than most; similar in taste to cow’s milk.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: Oatly Oat Drink Whole (ocado.com, £1.40) contains 2.8g fat per 100ml, 6.6g carbohydrates, 1g protein and 120mg fortified calcium.
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: ‘Consumers are showing they prefer the taste and functionality of oat milk over most plant-based alternatives,’ says Bjorn Oste, the co-founder of Oatly.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Oat milk’s high sugar content — in the form of carbohydrates — compared with other plant-based milks isn’t much higher than dairy milk, but dairy has protein and fat to balance it out,’ says Francesca. ‘As some oat milks are essentially just water and carbs, they can spike blood sugar levels, which can cause tiredness, headaches and food cravings.’
Harley Street nutritionist David Starr said even with six per cent almonds, Plenish’s version of almond drink (pictured) contains only about a third of the protein of cow’s milk
Produced in California since the 19th century. Almonds are soaked and ground in water before the pulp is filtered off.
TASTE: Nutty, watery.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: Plenish Organic 6% Almond Dairy Free Drink (Sainsbury’s, £1.50) contains 3.1g fat per 100ml, 0.4g carbohydrates and 1.3g protein.
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: ‘Each glass is packed with protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to give you a burst of energy, get your skin glowing and help protect heart health.’
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘It’s more like water than milk,’ says David. Even with six per cent almonds, Plenish’s version contains only about a third of the protein of cow’s milk, which, David says, ‘can lead to muscle wastage and hormonal disruption, resulting in problems around the menstrual cycle’.
David said rice milk is one of the better alternatives as it’s high in carbohydrates — the brain’s fuel source
The first rice milk factory was built in California in 1921. Grains are pressed through a grinding mill, strained and blended with water.
TASTE: Watery and sweet. Oils may be added for a creamier consistency.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: Alpro Rice Original Drink (ocado.com, £1.45) contains 12 per cent rice and has 1g fat per 100ml, 9.5g carbohydrate, 0.1g protein and 120mg fortified calcium.
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: Alpro says its rice milk is ‘easy to digest’ and ‘naturally low in fat’.
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘One of the better alternatives as it’s high in carbohydrates — the brain’s fuel source,’ says David. ‘But fat is an essential nutrient too, and a method for carrying vitamins, that rice milk lacks.’ And as with all plant-based milk fortified with calcium, he says, ‘it will pass through your body quickly without the protein cow’s milk contains’.
David says many clients come to him with calcium and vitamin D deficiencies after their families have switched to dairy-free milks: ‘They risk osteoporosis.’
David said he’s concerned about the lack of protein in products such as Morrisons’s Coconut Drink (pictured)
Used in Asian cooking for centuries, coconut milk has only become fashionable as a cow’s milk substitute in the past decade. The coconut ‘meat’ is grated to extract a milky fluid and heated, sometimes with added water.
TASTE: Creamy, sweet.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: The only milk that contains as much saturated fat as whole cow’s milk, Morrisons’s Coconut Drink (1l, £1) is fortified with vitamins B12, D2 and calcium, and contains 0.3g protein, 120mg calcium and 2g carbohydrates.
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: ‘Refreshingly tasty.’
Francesca said the protein content in potato milk is pretty low
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘It is good for satiety,’ says Francesca, although David is concerned about its popularity among people who follow a high-fat, zero-sugar diet: ‘My main concern is the lack of protein.’
Launched by Swedish brand Dug last year, potato milk, currently available online, will be stocked in Waitrose from next month. Potato is heated and emulsified with rapeseed oil. The milk contains six per cent potato, plus pea protein and chicory fibre.
TASTE: Said to have a ‘saline aftertaste’.
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: Per 100ml, there’s 1.5 g fat, 4.4g carbohydrates, 1.3g protein, 120mg calcium. Also fortified with vitamins D and B, and folic acid.
THE MANUFACTURERS’ CLAIM: ‘The most sustainable alternative.’
EXPERT VERDICT: ‘The protein content is still pretty low,’ says Francesca, while David adds: ‘Although its sustainability will be strong, cow’s milk contains nutrients that can be difficult to get elsewhere.’