Plant-based beverages are a hot trend that’s here to stay
So, you want an alternative to dairy milk? You’re not alone. Dairy-free, plant-based beverages have exploded onto the food scene and will likely continue to do so as the demand increases. But move over soy milk and almond milk — the dairy-free universe has expanded into oat milk, flax milk, macadamia milk and more.
People decrease or eliminate cow’s milk from their diet for a number of reasons, including a dairy allergy, lactose intolerance, vegan diet or health concerns. Sales of nondairy milk have experienced fast growth, according to the research group Mintel. In addition to nondairy consumers, half of dairy consumers also purchase nondairy plant-based beverages.
Plant-based beverages made from legumes, nuts, grains and seeds now taste and act similar to regular milk in meals and snacks. And the variety of dairy-free options available makes it easy for people to find an appropriate milk to use in cereal, coffee and tea, as well as in all kinds of cooking and baking.
Dairy-free or plant-based milks are ideal options for people with food allergies or intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, says Kimberly Kirchherr, RD, a registered dietitian and supermarket consultant in the greater Chicago area.
Education is key, and it’s important to learn what each option offers in terms of ingredients and nutrition. “One resource is choosemyplate.gov,” Kirchherr says. “In addition to reading the Nutrition Facts panel, this is a great place to dig into the unique nutrient packages within each food group.”
If it’s from plants, it has to be good, right? Well, from a nutritional standpoint, nondairy milks are tricky as they don’t all stack up the same. Cow’s milk has a strong nutritional profile, naturally containing 8 grams of protein per cup, as well as good amounts of potassium, phosphorus, calcium and B12.
Some flax, soy and oat milks contain fiber, and some nondairy milks made from peas, flax and quinoa contain healthy omega-3 fats. But most nondairy beverages have to be fortified with nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
“A con of most plant-milk beverages is that they do not contain nearly as much protein as regular milk does,” says Maggie Michalcyzk, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and nutritionist. Nondairy milks typically only have up to 1 to 2 grams of protein per cup, except soy milk and pea milk, which have 8 grams of protein per cup.
Most plant-based beverages contain added nutrients to up their nutrient profile. Case in point is soy milk. Even though it has a significant amount of protein, it is fortified with calcium as it doesn’t contain it naturally.
“Many of the options include a variety of added nutrients, so it’s essential to know what is in your total food and beverage selection to get what your body needs for balanced nutrition and overall support of your health goals,” Kirchherr says.
These days there is a health halo around plant-derived beverages.
However, the nutritional quality of plant drinks — especially the amount and bioavailability of the protein, as well as vitamins and minerals — does not always add up to a better product, especially if the product is not fortified with nutrients.
Plus, many plant-based milks contain added sugar, oils, gums and salt to enhance their flavor and texture. Some consumers have questions about additives like carrageenan, which some say can lead to inflammation.
“A registered dietitian and pharmacist are important and helpful resources to help sort out all the details in food and nutrition conversations,” Kirchherr says.
To cut down on your daily added sugar and calorie intake, choose the unsweetened varieties of nondairy milk whenever possible.
It’s smart to check the ingredients, as some nondairy milks contain very few ingredients while others have an extensive laundry list. Some brands of almond milk, as well as banana milk, make a point of adding no synthetic vitamins or minerals, but this leaves consumers having to get their nutrients elsewhere.
Chances are you’ll find a nondairy milk to meet any special dietary needs. On most containers, the labels clearly indicate if they are free of soy, nuts, dairy, gluten, gums, major allergens, lactose, carrageenan and GMOs.
But let’s face it, taste plays a big part in what we choose to eat and drink. Some plant-based milks can have a chalky texture and aftertaste; however, some are creamy and rich in flavor, making for great additions to coffee, cereal and baked goods.
“It’s important to consider how each choice will perform in cooking, so dishes come out as anticipated,” Kirchherr says.
If you are avoiding dairy, plant-based milks offer a great variety of options. Pay close attention to the labels, reading the ingredients and nutritional profile to see if you are getting a good amount of nutrients in your cup.
“There is no one right way to eat; there are many ways to get the nutrition our bodies and brains need to thrive,” Kirchherr says. With an increasing amount of beverage options, you can milk the plant-based trend for all it’s worth.
Perusing the Plant-Based Milk Aisle
Is a nondairy, plant milk in order? Check for the following:
- Choose unsweetened varieties.
- Aim for close to 8 grams per cup, which is comparable to cow’s milk.
- Aim for 30% (300 mg) of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) per cup.
Popular nondairy milk choices:
Nut and fruit milks
Variety of flavors; some are low calorie
Seed and grain milks
Some contain fiber and healthy omega-3 fats
High in protein, 8 grams per cup