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Blog Alt milk, you good?

Alt milk, you good?

Dairy milk has had a rough couple of years. 

In fact, Americans have been drinking less cow’s milk on a per-person basis since the mid-1940s, per the USDA.

And that’s because alt milks — aka plant-based milks — are thriving. Consumers have flocked to plant-based alternatives citing flavor preferences, health advantages, and environmental benefits. 

But are all those benefits of alt milk based in reality?

Let’s take a look. 

Preferences and priorities

Plant-based milk has surged in the U.S. over the last decade, but it’s been a staple for centuries around the world. That’s because most of the world has some form of lactose sensitivity or intolerance.

In South Asia, where soy milk has long been the preferred to dairy milk, up to 90 percent of people are lactose intolerant. Furthermore, scientists estimate that about 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.

Pair the growing awareness of lactose sensitivity with increased environmental concerns of dairy farming and you’ve got a booming alt milk market.

About 41% of U.S. households purchased plant-based milk in 2022, with a repeat purchase rate of 76 percent, according to the National Consumer Panel. Globally, revenue of plant-based milk grew 6 percent in 2022 to $19.1 billion, while sales by liters grew 3 percent. 

Nut milks

In the U.S., almond milk is the leader among plant-based milks and 7 in 10 consumers say it’s their preferred non-dairy option. But whether it’s almond, cashew, or coconut milk, most brands use little of the actual nut in the milk’s preparation. For example, the almond milk brand Califia says there are 5 or 6 almonds per 8 ounces.

“The ratio of nuts to water is so low that there ends up being very little nutritional value in the finished product,” Dr. Lisa Giusiana said. “Because the product is mostly water, thickening agents must be used to give the milk viscosity, making it appealing to the consumer.”

While lower in calories and saturated fat, nut milk doesn’t quite match up with dairy milk’s nutritional benefits. An 8-ounce cup of almond milk provides around 1 gram of protein as compared to dairy milk’s 8 grams, according to the Mayo Clinic. Dairy milk also is typically higher in calcium, however, many almond milk producers are starting to fortify their beverages with calcium. 

Soy milk

Globally, soy is the most popular plant-based milk. The beverage is high in protein — comparable to cow’s milk — and contains essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. It’s also naturally cholesterol-free.

Soy, however, is high in phytic acid, which can block the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals in the body. There is also some evidence to suggest that soy is associated with thyroid disorders such as hypothyroidism, goiter, and autoimmune thyroid disease, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. 

Oat milk

Oat milk is now the second-most popular plant-based milk in the U.S. It’s has a naturally sweet flavor without added sugars, a creamy texture, and is a great source of fiber. It’s also naturally low in saturated fat and is cholesterol-free, making it a heart-healthy choice compared to some dairy alternatives.

Similar to nut milk, however, oat milk generally contains less protein compared to dairy milk. Oat milk is also iffy for those with gluten allergies. While oats are a gluten-free grain, many oats are cross-contaminated with gluten, thus meaning that not all oat milks are gluten-free.

Environmental considerations

While they are typically more environmentally friendly than dairy milk, alt milks still pose concerns for the Earth.

The cultivation of almonds and cashews, for example, requires a significant amount of water. For almond milk, it takes 1,611 gallons of water to produce 1 liter of almond milk. For regions facing water scarcity, almond production can be a strain on local resources.

The top environmental concern for soy is that its farming drives deforestation in the Amazon region. Although demand for soy milk has spurred Brazilian land-use change, the largest driver of deforestation is beef production.

Oat milk fares arguably the best in terms of environmentally-friendly plant-based milks. Oats typically require less land when compared to almonds or cashews, and use far less water. Columbia University says that oat milk has among the lowest carbon footprints in the world of milk. 

Ingredients to keep an eye on

Here’s a list of common ingredients in plant-based milks to watch out for from Plenish. Some are related to health while others are related to dietary restrictions, sensitives, or preferences.

  1. Genetically modified oils — While these oils are generally safe, some may experience an upset stomach depending on how much they consume or based on how sensitive they are to them.

  2. Emulsifiers and gums — Many producers use xanthan gum and guar gum to thicken alt milk. They both can be difficult to digest, per Plenish.

  3. Evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, or cane syrup — Cane is simply sugar, which is devoid of nutritional value. Opt for unsweetened alt milk or find ones that use healthier alternatives, such as stevia, raw agave syrup, or grade A maple syrup.

  4. Natural flavors and natural colors — “Natural flavors” can suggest artificial sweeteners or MSG. They can be synthetically enhanced with preservatives and other ingredients “leading to allergies, headaches, and other health issues.”

  5. Vitamin D2 — This vitamin is an isolated form of natural vitamin D, and most bodies cannot properly absorb it, according to Plenish.

  6. Carrageenan — Though it’s mostly safe, you might want to avoid carrageenan if you have digestive problems, including inflammatory bowel disease like ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
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