Have you switched to almond milk? If you have, you’re certainly on trend. Sales of almond milk and other alternatives to dairy are growing around the world; “milks” such as almond, soy, rice and coconut are now competing with newer, fast-growing varieties such as quinoa, pecan, hazelnut and flax. In the US, non-dairy milk sales grew by 61 percent in the five years to 2017. Globally, the non-dairy milk market is expected to be worth over $US20 billion by 2024.
Alternative milks are popular with those who can’t tolerate the lactose in cow’s milk – estimated to be as much as two thirds of the world’s population – as well as those who don’t eat animal products. They’re also gaining popularity with mainstream consumers, perhaps due to a perception that plant-based milk is healthier than dairy. But is it really?
Plant milk packaging usually looks super-wholesome; in the case of almond milk, it often implies there’s the goodness of many almonds inside. This is a little misleading.
Whole almonds are, in fact, very good for us – they’re high in vitamin E and higher in calcium than other nuts, and they have the benefits of all nuts – healthy fats, fiber and protein. But we may not get all those benefits from almond milk. Most almond milks are mainly water; the almond content can be as low as 2 percent and is typically around 3-4 percent.
The same goes for other milks such as oat or other nut-based milks; the original ingredient is wholesome, but by the time it’s processed into milk there may be little of that benefit left. Often the benefits – calcium or vitamins, for example – are added back in.
There’s been little research into the nutritional benefits of plant-based milks, but a review published earlier this year in the Journal of Food Science and Technology looked at the nutritional value of plant-based alternatives versus cow’s milk, and concluded soy milk is the best alternative to dairy.
The review noted that plant milks are naturally low in kilojoules, carbohydrates and fat, but also – apart from soy – low in protein, unlike dairy milk. They also tend to be naturally low in calcium, although some plant milks have calcium added.