Almond, oat and soya milk are some of the most popular choices for plant based milks.

Plant milks: What’s the healthy option?  

With plant milks now a regular feature in many households, here’s how to make the healthiest choice.

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.

Sweet enough?

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.”

ReRooted sources it’s ingredients from ethical wholesaler Infinity Foods and is certified organic.

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.


Leave a Reply

  1. The elephant in the room here is Sunflower oil or rapeseed oil – both added to most milks and both detrimental to health. I have used plant milks for over 30 years always organic and avoiding soy, additives and vegetable oils. It is becoming harder and harder to find sources without vegetable oils. As a naturopath I am concerned that the added increase in vegetable oil consumption with the push for a plant based diet will add to the growing problems we are seeing with heart and inflammatory disease. I know they add substance and flavour but I think we need to address this.

    1. Hi Zara, it is the elephant in the room! I advise people to avoid plant milks with sunflower and rapeseed oil and definitely feel from my clinical experience that they are inflammatory. However, I’ve really struggled to find any evidence to support this so I couldn’t include it in the article. I’d love to see more research into these oils and inflammation and I absolutely share your concerns on seed oils and vegetable oils. If anyone has seen studies on this please do send them my way. Best wishes, Hannah

    2. I totally agree with you! I’m a naturopathic nutritional therapist and I always check with my clients if and what kind of plant-based milks they consume, especially if they have inflammatory health issues.

  2. ReRooted are producing what most consumers think they are getting when they purchase plant milks, a totally natural product.

    The problem is that the food industry has done what it always does and produced a cheaper synthetic highly processed alternative that is best avoided.

    Cows milk is a highly nutritious product rich in protein and calcium that should be in everyone’s diet if they are tolerant, if they are not then ReRooted is a great alternative.

    On another subject – ReRooted are using returnable glass bottles. Have Riverford made any decisions on converting to glass for their own milk products?

    1. Absolutely. As Riverford dairy are a small business (separate to Riverford, confusingly!) at the moment they aren’t able to invest in the facilities needed for processing and reusing glass bottles, but it is definitely under review and being reflected on.

  3. Would it please be possible to cite the studies/references showing how those synthetic nutrients are not as easy to absorb as the ones in wholefoods?

    1. Hi Enrike, yes asolutely. This differs between nutrients and between the forms used, so some products will offer more bioavailability than others.

      With vitamin b12, there is also the nuance that the bioavailability of the form used in fortification depends on individuals methylation capabilities, which is largely governed by genetics. Some of us have a genetic polymorphism or SNP which makes it harder for us to convert the form of b12 used in fortification and some supplements into it’s active form. You can read more about it in this study which concludes – “Supplementing with any of the nature bioidentical forms of B12 (MeCbl, OHCbl, and/or AdCbl) is preferred instead of the use of CNCbl, owing to their superior bioavailability and safety.”


      With calcium, this really depends on the form that is used, some are more bioavailable than others. This study found that, ‘calcium-fortified soy milk does not constitute a calcium source comparable to cow milk’

      But that doesn’t speak to all milks. This also doesn’t mean that fortified nutrients don’t offer benefit. But I encourage people to include wholefood sources of those nutrients as their main sources, and for vegans I would recommend supplementing with a good quality B12 in a superior form, rather than solely relying on fortification.
      Hope that helps, Hannah

  4. I’d like to know not just the healthiest, most nutritious and least glycaemic plant ‘milk’, but which is the most sustainable ecologically?

  5. As also Marian asked, what is the total environmental footprint of these milks? if the main and or other secondary ingredients are produced in a totally not sustainable manner, being chemically contaminated from pesticides, GMO rape seed or Canola oil, GMO soy(or even some potatoes are GMO in the USA), glyphosate dessicated in the case of oats, using massive amounts of water (in the case of California grown almonds 80 litres/ 1 kilo nuts) plus glyphosate destroyed “soil” in bare ground orchards, ethical labor used in the production specifically coconut (“fair trade” certified), arsenic accumulated in flooded rice production, any non soil health restorative, carbon depleting /degenerative production methods. These must be brought into focus as well as nutritional aspects, when evaluating the plant based milk. this is to say nothing of the soil carbon / health restorative process of careful rotational grazing, with dairy cattle, that is possible.
    I don’t know if in England you have hickory trees as we do in the eastern USA; with the possibility of using the nuts from the sweet varieties to make a milk substitute, by crushing the nuts in the shell, boiling it in water and straining out “milk” with a high omega 3, 9 ratio. Possibly beech nuts would work similarly; but probably are not likely a commercially available crop, the same as for hickory. From the “bitter hickory” nuts that have high tannin levels an excellent cooking oil can be expressed. This is a truly permanent agriculture. Did you know that the pecan, a native american nut, is actually a hickory but needs to grow in southern latitudes to give the nut a long enuf growing period to fill shell.
    Dan Lefever
    BioRational Resource
    Nellysford, Virginia, USA

    1. I’m have no medical expertise but I do listen to various doctors. Where I’ve got to at the moment is not viewing plant milks as a substitute to cows milk. ( for all the facts about the good bits in cows milk, all the nasties bother me so I avoid it ) I use plant milk that I make from soaked and ground organic almonds. And yes I am aware of the footprint of my food so I avoid animal products. The plant milk wets my muesli and I look for adequate nutrition else ware.

  6. This looks like marketing puff. Why not show your actual results? If I want to choose a milk to drink, your article tells me cows milk is the best, and any other kind of milk might have a high GI, though some almond, cashew, macadamia and soy milks are OK, others aren’t, and you’re not telling us which.
    Oh, and we should buy re-rooted products because the founder imagines they are probably good for us!

    1. Hi, this article was meant to inform and empower people to make their own choices, rather than tell anyone what to do. Can I ask what you mean by show your results? The studies mentioned have been referenced. This is a complex topic with many factors to consider so different people will come to different conclusions on which milk works best for them from a health perspective.

  7. This piece, aside from being a bald ‘puff’ for ReRooted, is too selective about which nutritional angles it address to be in any way balanced.
    It doesn’t clearly explain the basic difference in protein nutrition to be derived from plants milks: 100 ml of cow’s milk provides c. 3.6 grams of protein containing all the essential amino acids vital for the development of young children. With the exception of soya milk (which also has all the essential amino acids as cow’s milk and almost the same amount of protein) most plant-based milks have lower levels of protein and so do not offer comparable nutrition.
    The piece also says nothing about the way plant milks come with very low levels of saturated fats compared to cow’s milk, with the exception of coconut (although the particular sat’ fat it happens to contain at fairly high levels is considered to be useful), the way oat milk is considered useful to help lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and how rice milk contains virtually no saturated fat at all (but also comes with double the carbohydrate levels of cow’s milk and nearly 10 times that of some other plant milks.)
    Then there is calcium (and the way fortification is done). Calcium in cow’s milk (added by the cow!) is more readily absorbed because of the lactose content in milk so in plant-based alternatives it’s important to look for calcium carbonate (CaCO3) as this is considered to be the form most readily absorbed.
    I don’t know the demographics of your readership but will wager there is a case mention iodine too as this is a key micronutrient for women of child-bearing age (as it is important for foetal brain growth and bone development). Plant milks, on average, contain only 2% of the iodine level found in cow’s milk – which is why most vegans know they need to eat certain key foods or use a supplement.
    If you want to argue you don’t have the space or word count for so much detail, then please make more use of data visualisation or just a simple table to summarise.
    And in case you wonder, full disclosure, I’m a regular oat milk user in late middle age.

    1. The ReRooted piece is very skimpy on balanced data and a lack of comparison with other plant milk/milk drinkers for readers. It’s a complex topic given an individuals specific needs. However if I was promoting a product I would want to give clear messaging so the public could make suitable choices.


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