Plant milks from nuts, seeds, grains and legumes have become increasingly popular. For those who can't tolerate, or choose not to consume cow's milk, they are a welcome alternative.
Non dairy milk alternatives
almond, cashew, coconut, hazelnut
flax, hemp, quinoa, amarinth
soya, pea, fava, peanut
oat, rice, kamut, spelt
Plant based milks are essentially processed plant material suspended in water. Commercially manufactured varieties are often fortified with minerals and vitamins in an attempt to deliver the equivalent nutrient profile of cow’s milk. Salt, sugar and oils are common ingredients as are preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilisers. Of course, organic plant milks avoid many of these additions.
There is no clear information about the bioavailability of fortified nutrients in nondairy milks. It is likely to vary tremendously so it is important not to rely on plant based milks for minerals like calcium & potassium or vitamins, especially vitamin D & B12 and ensure they are adequately obtained elsewhere in the diet.
If you choose to use plant based milks there are a number of considerations as just like dairy there are inherent problems.
Soya has the most protein of the non dairy milks and manufacturers normally fortify soya milk with vitamins and minerals. Sometimes sugar and salt are also added. Negative side effects can result from drinking too much soya milk, in particular, stomach problems such as gas & and the associated pain. Soya products are thought to be the root cause of some thyroid disorders, reproductive system problems and allergy related symptoms. Soya is one of the most common food allergens, especially in children.
To produce soya milk the beans are cooked at high temperature then put through a grinding process before straining. The large amount of waste produced during the soy milk production process often ends up as animal feed so drinking soya can be feeding industrial animal farming!
Soya has faced criticism for many years over its role in deforesting the Amazon and being a major genetically modified crop. However, soya milk drinkers have never been the leading cause of these issues – most of the world’s soya is fed to animals. The UK does not grow much soya in 2015/16 approximately 400 hectares. UK whole soya bean imports in the same years were 0.68 million tonnes used generally in soya food products which includes soya milk.
Almond milk Almonds are packed with protein, minerals, vitamins, healthy fats and fibre. Unfortunately that is not the case with almond milk. Almond milk (in fact nut milks in general) tends to be highly diluted with water resulting in the end product having a minimal amount of the nutrients found in the whole nut. Most brands contain only around 2% almonds.
Commercial almond milk is made by blending almonds with water in large scale blenders, the almond pulp is strained out and the water left behind is the milk!
Over 80% of the worlds almonds come from California. It takes 5.5 litres to grow just one almond and California is facing huge water shortage issues, despite this, because of the ever growing popularity of almond milk and the profit that can be made, new almond crops are still being planted.
In addition the vast monoculture of almond trees requires in excess of 1.5 million colonies of bees to be transported in to pollinate the trees. Pesticides, insecticides and transportation results in massive bee losses. The beekeepers know how bad this is for the bees but the fee of $150,000 is too tempting!
Coconut milk Coconut milk has a creamy texture but the flavour for some people can be a bit overwhelming. Coconut milk has very little protein but is high in fat, mostly in the form of medium chain saturated fatty acids, 50% of this fat content is lauric acid which is also found in human milk and known to have anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. The fat content in coconut milk is quickly turned into energy.
Coconut milk is made from grated and squeezed coconut meat diluted with water.
Although coconut products are booming in popularity, the individuals producing them are not reaping the rewards. There is a significant gap between skyrocketing sales and poverty-level incomes earned by farmers in key coconut producing economies. In the Philippines, one of the world's leading coconut producers, an estimated 60 percent of small-scale coconut farmers live in poverty. Oxfam says that many growers earn less than £1 a day – (the price of a coconut in a UK shop).
Monoculture has become an issue in areas where coconuts are grown. As the coconut tree ages it becomes less productive, motivating farmers to plant more and more coconut trees to maintain a constant stream of coconuts . Replacing native plants and bio-diversity to grow coconuts has a major effect on the soil leading farmers to turn to chemical fertilisers. to boost productivity. Some governments have subsidised chemical fertilisers for farmers, With this cheap alternative available, farmers are disinclined to adopt organic farming methods and the inherent environmental protection. Coconuts are generally grown without the use of pesticides.
Harvesting coconuts needs agile and adept climbers and this is where monkey’s come in. Native to coconut growing regions in Southeast Asia they are capable of harvesting several hundred more coconuts a day than a human can. Monkeys are chained by the neck and trained to pick only ripe coconuts and are then forced to do so, day in, day out and all day long. During training and beyond, the monkeys are tethered or caged 24/7, sometimes with little to no opportunity for socialisation. If your coconut milk comes from the Thailand there is a very high chance the coconuts were harvested this way. There are a number of sustainable coconut farms in Sri Lanka that do not use monkeys and the Pacific Isles are monkey free.
If you buy coconut milk seek out companies that make a statement about using monkey’s,
ensure coconut producers are paid a fair wage and the coconuts come from an organic growing system.
Rice milk If you have a dairy, nut or soya allergy many people consider rice milk to be the best option It lacks protein, vitamin A and the fats found in other milks and is also rather high in sugar.
It is estimated that it takes around 550 litres of water to grow the rice needed to make 4.5 litres of rice milk. In addition, rice paddies globally are responsible for more than 1.2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and at least 10% of agricultural emissions.
There is also concern around arsenic levels in rice. There are two types of arsenic: organic (in the biological sense) and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is the kind that’s dangerous and is associated with adverse health effects ― and it’s the kind that’s present in rice. The arsenic content in rice varies according to the type of rice, where its grown, how it has been processed and how it has been cooked. The maximum concentration of arsenic has been found in rice bran, so products made from this, for example rice milks, have a higher concentration.
Arsenic finds its way into food because it’s absorbed by the plant as it grows. Some plants absorb more than others, and rice seems to absorb the most among commonly eaten foods.
In the UK the FSA advises that toddlers and young children (up to 4.5 years) should not be given rice drinks and that rice milk should never be used as a substitute for breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk. There is no recommendation for other consumers.
Health, social justice and environmental sustainability are all issues that need to be addressed when choosing soya, almond, coconut & rice milks - I would avoid them and use more local, nourishing and environmentally friendly milks like oat & hemp. Most commercial brands of oat & hemp do not use UK sourced raw ingredients. If you make your own you can use oats & hemp grown in the UK, produce a more nutrient dense milk and avoid tetra paks!
Oat milk is very low in fat, contains plenty of calcium and is a great source of Vitamin A and iron.
Oats are well-known for their heart-healthy benefits because they contain a type of soluble fibre called beta-glucan, the effects of which are retained in oat milk. Depending on the ratio of oats to water this milk can also provide many important vitamins and minerals including manganese, potassium, phosphorus, many B vitamins and vitamin E.
Commercial oat milk, mills the grain then adds enzymes to break down the oat starches into smaller components. Next the bran is removed leaving the loose fibres, this basic oat base can have other ingredients added to it like oil, minerals & vitamins.
Make your own oat milk
Measure 1 part rolled oats to 4 parts water.
To make a thicker consistency add more oats to less water and vice versa for a thinner consistency.
Soak the oats over night in the water
Blitz together in a blender
strain through a sieve or use as it is
If you want to use in coffee or tea it is best strained,
(use the remains in smoothies or porridge)
change the flavour with a pinch of salt or a drop of vanilla essence
If you are going to use on cereals or to make smoothies there's no need
store in a glass jar in the fridge – lasts 3 days
You can also make the oat milk with oat groats in which case it is best strained
Hemp seeds have a rich, nutty flavor and are packed full of nutrients.
It is so simple to make your own nutrient dense plant milk from shelled hemp I can see no reason to buy it ready made.
Hemp is an excellent source of plant based proteins containing all of the essential amino acids 3 tablespoons of hemp provides 10g of protein.
Hemp is an excellent source of healthy fats providing omega 6 and omega 3 in an excellent 3:1 ratio. The omega 3 in hemp is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) not the more desirable EPA & DHA so the body has to convert the ALA to EPA & DHA which it can do but not always efficiently. Other nutrients include magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, beta carotene, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and in addition fibre.
Make your own hemp milk
Place 1 part shelled hemp seeds to 4 parts water into a blender, you can alter the proportions to suit yourself
Blitz for 45/60 seconds until creamy
Use unstrained for the best nutritional benefits
Store in a glass jar for up to 2 days
The healthiest diet for humans and the planet is plant rich. The ingenuity of food processors has brought an ever expanding array of plant based milks to choose from (see above). Similar problems exist with all of them and in particular the waste of valuable nutrition. The best way to eat plants is as whole foods so that we benefit from both the totality and synergy of their nutrients.
Even the small increases in global temperature that are now impossible to avoid will effect our ability to produce the levels of food needed to provide everyone with a healthy diet. Locally grown, nutrient dense foods are key to food security.
Industrial livestock farming is wrong in every way and it is not sustainable. Continuous crop production is not sustainable either, however, there are ways to incorporate livestock and crops into farming systems that are rich sanctuaries for biodiversity, producing sustainable food that contributes to thriving local economies and a sustainable way of living – these include silvopasture, forest food gardens, regenerative farming & biodynamic farming.
There is evidence that eliminating animal products altogether isn’t the best way to maximise sustainable land use. In the UK small mixed farms using crop rotations along with leys and a small number of livestock is one of the more sustainable ways for us to farm.
Cows milk can still be on the menu and for those, for whatever reason, do not drink cows milk, let’s ensure that plant milks come from sustainable systems.
Duchin, F. (2005) Sustainable Consumption of Food - A Framework for Analysing Scenarios about Changes in Diets. Journal of Industrial Ecology
A Comparison of the Nutritional Value of Cow's Milk and Nondairy Beverages
Singhal, Sarita, Baker, Robert D. Baker, Susan S.
Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition May2017
Drawdown – The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming
edited by Paul Hawken ISBN 978-0-14-313044-4