Spoiler alert: it’s soy. Its only major disadvantage is the taste — as it so often happens, the healthiest option is not the tastiest.
Plant milk has been consumed for centuries, both as a recreational drink and as a substitute for dairy milk, but it’s certainly become more popular in recent decades. Its popularity grew mostly by being commercialized as an alternative for people suffering from lactose intolerance, but today it is enjoyed by a much broader audience. People may consume plant-based milk for ethical reasons (animal welfare), environmental reasons (lower water consumption, lower embedded emissions), health reasons, or simple preference. In most markets, you can find several options, the most common of which are soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and rice milk (oat milk is also quite common, but was not analyzed in this study).
Researchers wanted to assess just how healthy these drinks really are from a nutritional standpoint. They compared how nutritious a glass of plant-based milk is compared to the real deal.
- Soy milk came out on top. Widely used as a substitute for cow’s milk, soy milk is notable the anti-carcinogenic properties of phytonutrients present in the milk known as isoflavones. Nutritionally, it has lower calories than cow milk, less fat and carbohydrates, and almost as many proteins.
- Rice milk has more calories than soy (still lower than cow milk), but it also has more sugar and almost no protein.
- Coconut milk has no protein at all, and a significant amount of fat. However, it has way fewer calories than the other plant-based options.
- Almond milk is also low in both calories and proteins. However, similar to soy milk, it is associated with allergies in a significant percentage of the population.
Here’s the full nutritional info:
Cow milk itself has been quite controversial as a food, though most researchers now agree that it is a wholesome food, containing all major nutrients like fat, carbohydrates and proteins. Milk also helps humans by providing a number of host-defence proteins that can help protect the body against some microbial infections. However, the presence of certain pathogens (such as Salmonella spp and Escherichia coli) have caused significant outbreaks around the world. Furthermore, lactose intolerance affects anywhere between 10% (in Northern Europe) and 95% (in some parts of Africa and Asia) of a population.
Plant-based alternatives, while increasingly popular, have been surprisingly understudied. This review is one of the few to analyze the nutritional benefits of these drinks and provide useful advice to consumers.
Researchers write in the study:
“It is quite clear that nutritionally soy milk is the best alternative for replacing cow’s milk in human diet. But, various issues including the ‘beany flavor’ and presence of anti-nutrients are major hurdles which encouraged people to look for more alternatives like almond milk, etc., Though, almond milk also has a balanced nutrient profile and much better flavor, the nutrient density and the total number of calories are not as rich as that of cow’s milk. Hence, when consuming almond milk care should be taken that various essential nutrients are available through other sources in the diet in appropriate quantities.”
“Rice milk and coconut milk cannot act as an ideal alternative for cow’s milk because of limited nutrient diversity, but they are the options for consumers that are allergic to soybeans and/or almonds. Further research is needed to understand the effect of various conventional and novel processing methods on the nutrient profile, flavor and texture of these alternative milks.”
Journal Reference: “How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk?” By Sai Kranthi Vanga and Vijaya Raghavan in Journal of Food Science Technology: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y