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May 18, 2021

Plant-Based Milks 101: Everything you Need to Know.

*Editor’s Note: Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say “this web site is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that. ~ Ed

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The global plant-based milk market was valued at 12 billion USD in 2019 and is rapidly growing.

Pretty crazy, right?

Plant-based milks are the vegan alternative to cow’s milk. The dairy industry has been proven to be equally as unethical as the meat industry, so making the leap to vegan milk is as good for your karma as it is for your health.

Plant-based milks are usually made by soaking, blending, and straining the main ingredients with water. Sometimes extra nutrients like calcium and B12 are added, to help you get the same nutrients you would from regular milk.

You can make your own plant-based milk at home but most supermarkets now stock an affordable and varied selection.

Why Choose Plant-Based Milks?

Aside from being cruelty-free, choosing a plant-based milk can make a significant improvement on your health. Sixty-eight percent of the population is estimated to suffer from lactose intolerance, and milk can lead to skin problems, stomach issues, illness, and mental health issues.

Add that to the fact that cows are often ill themselves when being milked, and it’s not hard to see why plant-based milks made up 14 percent of the entire milk market in 2019.

There’s also now such a range of different vegan milks to try that, regardless of flavour, use, or allergies, you’re guaranteed to find (at least) one you like.

How do you know which one is right for you?

We’re pretty spoiled for choice when it comes to plant-based milks—from nut milks to grains, they all have different flavours and benefits.

You should base your choice on personal preference, for taste and texture, but also for nutrients and allergies. (If you’re allergic to nuts, almond milk is unlikely to become a staple for you!) We should always try to get milk that has been fortified with vitamins and calcium, so it’s as healthy and as nutritious as possible.

Here’s a breakdown of the most popular plant-based milks and the pros and cons of each.

Soy Milk

Before the vegan movement really caught momentum, most consumers were limited to just buying soy. It was super popular due to its similarity to cow’s milk (similar texture and richness, nutritional profile, and high protein content).

It protects against a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular conditions and cerebrovascular diseases. Many anti-vegans cite soy milk as being a big contributor to climate change, and while it’s true that soy production has a hugely damaging impact on the planet, only six percent of the world’s soy is consumed by humans, not all of them vegan.

In contrast, 70 percent of soy that is produced globally is fed directly to livestock, for meat.

Benefits:

>> Low in cholesterol
>> Good source of protein, manganese, vitamin K, thiamin, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper
>> All nine essential amino acids
>> Only 0.5 g of saturated fat per glass

Cons:

>> Some studies link soy to increasing estrogen in women (and in men) so some consumers dislike it as they feel it affects their mood or skin
>> Many soy crops are genetically modified with GMOs
>> Soy sensitivity is a common food intolerance

Is it right for me? 

Soy has a creamy, rich texture which makes it especially great if you like cereal, smoothies, or you’re looking for something similar to milk.

It might not be right for you if you have a soy allergy, or if you want to add milk to your morning coffee.

I, personally, avoid it in drip coffee or tea. Soy has quite a strong flavour in these drinks and can separate in coffee, which is pretty unpleasant to look at. (It does, however, taste amazing in hot lattes!)

Almond Milk

Almond is popular because it’s creamy, and it tastes great. Nutritionally, it’s not as impressive as soy, but it does include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which boost cardiovascular and cerebral health.

It’s also really low in calories, which makes it a popular choice in cafés and smoothie bars, especially considering how good it tastes in drinks.

Benefits:

>> It’s low in calories and creamy in texture
>> Contains healthy fats, fiber, protein, magnesium, and vitamin E
>> Lowers blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure
>> It’s cheap and readily available

Cons:

>> It’s the worst milk for the environment requiring more water and energy than any other milk on the list
>> It has a low nutritional profile and barely any protein

Is it right for me? 

Almond milk works well with drinks, especially smoothies or smoothie bowls, and all things sweet.

However, once again, it just doesn’t mix well with drip coffee and can separate. It also has a distinct flavour in lattes and hot drinks that other milks on this list don’t, so I’d stick with cold drinks here.

Obviously, one to avoid if you have nut allergies, though.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is my personal favorite, although depending on the brand, it can have an almost sour aftertaste. It’s super creamy and the taste is easy to mix into sweet and savoury foods.

It’s low calories and a good source of fatty acids, although its protein value is about as low as almond milk. It’s best to get one that’s fortified too because cashews don’t have the nutritional versatility that soybeans do.

Benefits:

>> Tastes amazing and versatile in the kitchen
>> Boosts immunity and cancer risks
>> Can improve skin and anemia
>> Heart-healthy and good for your eyes

Cons:

>> Can be difficult to find depending on where you live
>> There have been links to unethical farming (so do your research on the brand you buy)

Is it right for me? 

Cashew milk is pretty neutral tasting, creamy, and delicious. It’s great for people who want a multipurpose milk that works in both sweet and savoury dishes.

It isn’t for people who are allergic to nuts or who prefer a sweet note to their milks.

Hazelnut Milk

Hazelnut milk is absolutely delicious. It tastes a little like Nutella, with a naturally sweet flavour. If you have a sweet tooth, this is probably going to end up on your list of favourites.

The only downside is that it can be really hard to find hazelnut milk without added sugar.

Benefits:

>> Lowers blood sugar levels and cholesterol
>> Lowers your risks of cardiovascular diseases
>> Hazelnut milk is high in antioxidants and high in vitamin E
>> It tastes really good on its own or in anything sweet

Cons:

>> It’s really hard to find unsweetened hazelnut milk
>> It doesn’t work well in savoury foods
>> It can be more expensive and harder to find than other nut milks

Is it right for me? 

If you like sweet foods and you really like Nutella, this might be the right choice for you. If you’re allergic to nuts or have more of a savoury taste than a sweet one, maybe give this one a miss.

It works really well in cereals, especially in oats, due to its creamy texture and naturally sweet taste, and helps to spice up your morning coffee with a little je ne sais quoi.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is another allergy-free milk that’s easy on the environment and generally cheap. Although not the most nutrient-dense, it does have antioxidants, and it’s really easy to digest.

The one big flaw of rice milk (or certainly in my opinion) is that of all the milks, it’s the most watery and least satisfying.

Benefits:

>> It contains antioxidants like para-aminobenzoic acid, which are great for your skin
>> It can reduce cholesterol and chronic diseases
>> It’s really easy on digestion and allergy-free
>> It’s good for the environment

Cons:

>> Rice milk is super high in carbs compared to other milk, so not a good choice if you have diabetes

Is it right for me? 

Rice milk is excellent for you if you have allergies or want a milk without a strong taste. It works well in coffees and teas, but if you want something with a bit more texture for your cereal, this probably isn’t it.

Oat milk

Oat milk is the milk of the moment—great for the environment, allergy-free, healthy, and easy to find.

It has more protein and fibre than most nut milks, making it easy to digest. It also mixes really well with most things, whether savoury or sweet, and its versatility is something else that has bolstered its popularity.

Benefits:

>> Allergies aren’t an issue here, as it’s lactose, soy, nut, and gluten-free
>> Good source of B vitamins
>> Can lower cholesterol and blood pressures
>> It’s by far the most environmentally friendly milk

Cons:

>> It’s high in carbs, so not great for those on keto
>> It doesn’t have that many nutrients, especially in comparison to soy milk

Is it right for me? 

Oat milk could be perfect for you if you like the flavour—it’s based on personal preference. It mixes well in savoury and sweet foods, and it’s low priced due to its rise in popularity.

Oat milk is definitely for you, though, if you have any allergies. Just make sure that you check whether it gluten-free (sometimes oats can come into contact with other foods that contain gluten while it’s being produced and packaged).

Coconut milk

You might be thinking of those high-fat cans of thick coconut milk for cooking, but this is something else. You’ll usually find this coconut milk in a carton, with a much higher water-to-coconut ratio.

Coconut milk is great for digestion and immunity, but it can be both a little watery and have an intense flavour at the same time, so it is quite an acquired taste. However, if you do like coconut, it can give a real kick to a latte with its creamy, slightly sweet flavour.

Benefits:

>> Evidence suggests it boosts metabolism and aids weight loss
>> MLT may actually lower cholesterol and blood pressure
>> Reduces inflammation and stomach ulcers
>> Improves your immune system and aids the gut microbiome

Cons:

>> Can cause irritation for those with IBS
>> Higher in saturated fat than other milks on this list
>> Usually a thin texture so not ideal for smoothies

Is it right for me? 

Coconut milk is usually allergy-safe, but it’s high in fat. Although not great in smoothies, coconut milk is pretty good in a coffee or a tea because it mixes well without separating.

Hemp milk

Hemp is relatively new to the market, but it’s rising steadily in popularity. Made out of hemp seeds, it’s high in nutrients and low in saturated fats.

It’s also really good for the environment, requiring little water and no pesticides to grow. It does have quite an acquired flavour, so you’ll have to make your own mind up about whether it’ll become your holy grail.

Benefits:

>> It has omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
>> Some studies suggest it can help reduce eczema symptoms
>> It may protect you against heart disease
>> It’s allergy-free and low in saturated fats

Cons:

>> It has a strong flavour, making it hard to mix into teas and coffee
>> It can be pretty hard to find in grocery stores

Is it right for me? 

Hemp milk is a good option if you have allergies or you’re trying to boost your omegas. It’s pretty sweet so mixes nicely with smoothies and cereals. But, if you want milk with a mild flavour, or one similar to cow’s milk this is unlikely to be your first choice.

Are there other plant-based milks?

Yes! There are actually plenty of other milks, including flax milk, macadamia milk, pecan milk, and quinoa milk! In fact, any nut you can think of will likely have a plant-based milk attached to it.

These milks can be harder to find and expensive, though, so I’ve covered above all the ones that you’ll usually run into at the grocery store.

Everyone has different tastes, so it’s a good idea to try all of the milks in this list and see which one works best for you. It is important that we think about the environment, though, and make sure that our plant-based milks are as ethical as can be; otherwise, what’s the point?

Do you have a favourite plant-based milk, or any tips on making your own? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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