Have you have decided to drink plant based milks alternatives? This could be for many different reasons: food intolerances and allergies, animal welfare, vegan diet.
You would never think to stop and think about the ingredients in a pint of cow's milk. After all It's just milk! But please look at the ingredients in your alternative milks.
At the same time, have a think about the rest of your diet and the other foods that you are eating. This will make a difference as to whether or not you are relying upon your milk alternative for important nutrients. If you are only using plant based milks for tea and coffee then this is fine. However if you are ditching cows milk completely and are using plant based milks for cooking, cereal, porridge, baking then you need to think a little more carefully about what is in your milk.
Your age group is also important. There are fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals that are difficult to replicate in plant based milk but essential at different stages of life.
There are so many different types of plant milk.
What one you decide upon is totally up to individual taste. They all have different characteristics that might sway your choice but you have to like the milk you are drinking. Here are some of the options:
Nut based milks
How Are Plant Based Milks Produced?
Beans and nuts are ground then water is added. Cereals are soaked. Then flavours and sometimes vitamins and minerals are added.
There are a number of manufacturers producing ‘organic’ milks. Organic is mainly about farming methods and benefits to the soil and the environment. It can benefit you if you are worried about additives since there won’t be any. There won’t be any added sugar or flavourings but there won’t be any added vitamins and minerals either.
The sugar and nutritional content of a plant based milk will depend on how it has been made. Every manufacturer will make milk differently
The fat content of the two milks may be similar, it all depends on how the plant milk is made. Check the nutrition label.
An unsweetened plant milk may contain very little. Sweetened plant milks can be very high in sugar, as different varieties are added to make the milks more palatable. Again be careful to read the label and the ingredient list.
If you choose to have a plant based milk drink from a coffee shop be aware that they often use professionals ‘barista’ plant based milks specially developed to froth and perform at high temperatures. They often contain more sugar. Ask if this is a concern.
The main difference between cow's milk and plant based milk is the protein. It is important to note that the quality of protein from plant based milks is not as high as that from cow's milk. Cow's milk protein is made from a ‘complete’ set of amino acids, whereas plant based milks cannot offer this. Be aware that the plant-based protein may not be sufficient for young children and the elderly, due to the different types of ‘building block’ amino acids they need.
If you ensure that you and your family eat a nutritionally balanced diet, then you are probably getting the protein you need. Chicken, fish, nuts, lentils, yoghurt, cheese, beans, tofu will all provide the complete set of amino acids when eaten in combination.
Vitamins and Minerals
There is a big difference in the way that plant based milks are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Different producers will choose to fortify their products as they see fit or not at all.
The vitamins and minerals you should look out for are calcium, vitamin, B12 and iodine and vitamin D.
The best way to get this is from sunlight but this is difficult in the UK, especially in the winter months.
Vitamin D has many health benefits together with calcium strong bones are made. There are many other health benefits, including helping a variety of diseases.
Calcium is vital for strong bones and teeth. Consuming enough in early years is vital for bone growth. In later years we need it to ensure stable bone mass as we age. Adequate calcium in the diet will help to prevent osteoporosis and fractures.
Calcium also plays a small but vital role in the running of the body allowing everyday functions to be maintained. If there is insufficient calcium in the diet then the body will steal some from the bones weakening them.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, then you are probably not getting enough B12.
Most non-vegetarian foods contain some B12, however vegetarian foods do not,unless they are fortified. as some are, for instance breakfast cereals, nutritional yeasts and some plant based milks.
So why is B12 so important? The main function of B12 is in cell division and production of red blood cells. It plays an important role in the digestion and absorption of nutrients.
ome of the signs of vitamin B12 deficiency are: tiredness, loss of energy, tingling or numbness and reduced sensitivity to pain or pressure
Iodine is vital for the production of thyroid hormones which look after the metabolism of the body as well as brain development and growth. It is vital that mums get adequate iodine in the first trimester of pregnancy
If you are eating a healthy balanced diet this may not be something to worry about, just be aware of and make an informed decision about where this mineral is coming from..
Iodine can be found in white fish such as haddock and cod. Other fish like tuna and salmon will contain some but the content will be much lower. Eggs are also a good source as are dairy products such as yogurts and cheese.
Some plant based milks have added additives to help to thicken them. To find out about them you will need to check the label. These will be totally harmless, but whether you want to consume them depends on why you have chosen to drink a plant based milk in the first place.
Guar gum - used a binding and thickening agent
Gellan gum - used a binding and thickening agent
Pea protein - often used in almond milk to boost the protein content
Tapioca starch - used as a binding and thickening agent
Carrageenan - used an emulsifying agent and thickening agent
Most of these thickening agents are used to bind the oils (from the nuts) and water together. They improve the texture of the milk but are not essential. If you buy milk without thickening agents just make sure to give a really good shake!
Plant based milks and children
Young children need the building protein that cows milk can give them, plus the calcium and other nutrients.
Children may suffer allergies to cow’s milk so alternatives need to be found. Goat’s or sheep's milk might be alternatives to consider. These have different sugars and proteins to cow’s milk and may not cause any allergic reaction or intolerance. Your doctor will be able to advise.
In any other cases, you should strongly consider whether it is the right thing to take children off animal milk. If you decide to go ahead make sure that dairy alternatives such as yogurt and cheese are being eaten.
Rice milk should be avoided for young children (certainly below age 5) because it contains traces of arsenic which is a poison.
All plant milks are manufactured differently and therefore all have different compositions. If you are not eating dairy or fish, for instance as part of a vegan diet, then especially make sure the plant based milk you chose is fortified with iodine, calcium and vitamin D. Ideally it should be fortified with vitamin B12 too.
Check the label and know what's in your milk.