Plant milks are now popular even among non-vegans as many people look to reduce their intake of animal products. Long gone are the days of tea with clumpy long-life soya milk; now you can take your pick from almond to oat, coconut or even potato milk.
With so many options, each with a different ingredient profile, how do you choose the healthiest option? Let’s look at some things you might want to consider when choosing a plant milk.
To add, or not to add
In the quest to emulate the smooth, satisfying and froth-able texture of cow’s milk, most plant milk producers formulate their products with a range of additives. Additives can improve taste, texture, and shelf life. But what are they? And should we be concerned about them?
Emulsifiers or thickening agents, including xanthan gum, locust bean gum, gellan gum, guar gum, carrageenan and others, are commonly used to enhance the texture and consistency of plant milks and prevent separation.
These gums are generally well tolerated, but there have been some concerns that they may contribute to gastrointestinal issues in sensitive individuals, such as gas and bloating, as they are indigestible fibres which interact with gut microbiota, as all fibre does.
Large doses of guar gum and xantham gum have been found to cause abdominal discomfort in some individuals. But it’s worth noting that this would be when consumed at doses far higher than would ever be found in plant milks.
Carrageenan, a thickener commonly found in plant milks, has been linked to inflammation and contributing to gut and metabolic disease through disruption of the gut microbiome and the intestinal mucus layer. Though this remains controversial, with human studies being challenging due to ethical concerns.
As a nutritional therapist, my stance is that while these additives are not to be feared, it is a good idea to avoid excessive consumption.
It is sensible to avoid added sugar and artificial sweeteners, but even plant milks without added sugar can have hugely varying impacts on your blood sugar levels. One study looked at the glycaemic index (GI) – a measure of how a food impacts blood glucose levels – of several plant milks. It found that Rude Health organic brown rice milk came in with the highest GI at 99.6, while Oatly came in at 59.61. For reference, the GI of Coca Cola is 63 and whole milk is around 34.
The study found that of the milks they looked at, eight based on almond, cashew, macadamia and soy presented as low GI, along with cow’s milk. While six others based on almonds, hemp, oat and soy had a medium GI, and the coconut and rice beverages had a high GI. If you are looking to keep your blood sugar levels stable, which is important, and you drink a significant amount of plant milk, choosing plant milks that are not based on carbohydrates like oats and rice might be a good idea.
Dream of fortification
Plant milks are often fortified with synthetic nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 to emulate the nutrients found in cow’s milk. However, these synthetic nutrients are not usually as easy to absorb (bioavailable) as their natural counterparts, or well formulated supplements, which are designed to be as bioavailable as possible. Ensuring your diet is rich in wholefood sources of these nutrients is a better idea than relying on plant milks as a main source. Organic plant milks are not fortified due to organic certification regulations, which require total traceability.
To find out more, I spoke to Dan Dawson, co-founder of plant milk brand ReRooted, who says: “We are not able to fortify our milks due to being organic. However, having the highest percentages of the best quality ingredients, only having a shelf life of 21 days – as opposed to at least six months of Tetrapak alternatives – and being pasteurised at low temperatures, I imagine this would make ours the most nutrient dense of the unfortified plant-based milks.”
He goes on to say: “A high-quality supplement derived from organic wholefoods is, to us, always preferable to a fortified food or beverage.”
Fortification tends to use cheap synthetic nutrients, which are not the most bioavailable. Wholefoods and decent quality supplements to plug any necessary gaps is a stronger option for your micronutrient needs.
I also asked Dawson for his stance on additives: “The desire to keep our ingredients minimal was actually one of the major reasons we created ReRooted in the first place. Back in 2018 Rich [his co-founder] and I came to the end of our tether with the plant-based milks that were on offer – we were giving them to our young families and they had such minute amounts of the supposedly primary ingredient, but were also sweetened with rice bases, making them incredibly sweet.
“We wanted to create organic plant milks that were high in the best quality ingredients, made in the UK in a truly ethical and transparent way, and sweetened subtly with wholefoods, [so] we chose dates.”
If you are a plant milk drinker, getting to grips with the ingredients list and choosing one with wholefood ingredients and minimal additives is the healthiest approach.
Or have a go at making your own at home by blitzing your main ingredient with water and straining through a muslin cloth.