Not too long ago, when
most of us thought of milk, it was impossible to picture anything but the
creamy white substance that comes from a cow. These days, however, there’s a
wide, wide world of “milks” on the market that have nothing to do with animals.
Plant-based milks have become an extremely popular alternative to traditional
dairy in the last several years. In fact, consumer interest is at an all-time
high, with a 61
percent increase in non-dairy milk sales from 2012 to 2018.
interchangeability with cow’s milk in many recipes and food preparations, their
high nutrient content, and their often-low calorie and carb count, it’s easy to
see why plant-based milks are making a splash. Here’s a look at the benefits of
several popular plant and nut milks—and the surprisingly easy process of making
Plant Milks vs. Dairy Milk
If you’re new to milk alternatives, you may initially wonder what the fuss is all about, and whether these beverages should replace cow’s milk in your diet. Unless you have a food allergy, intolerance, or health condition that requires the limitation of dairy, it’s certainly not necessary to skip animal milk. Milk from cows, goats, and sheep does offer a number of nutritional benefits. Besides its well-known calcium content, dairy milk is often fortified with vitamin D, which helps maintain healthy bones and supports the immune system. It also offers a sizeable dose of potassium, plus plenty of protein at eight grams per cup. Still, you may be drawn to plant and nut milks as part of a vegan diet, to cut back on saturated fat and carbohydrates, or simply to experiment with something new.
milks vary in how they compare with cow’s milk. Many are quite low-calorie, as
low as just 20 calories per cup in certain almond milks. Next to whole milk’s 150-per
cup calorie count, this can be an ideal choice for weight loss. In general, plant-based
milks also tend to contain fewer carbohydrates, which may benefit people on a
Plant milks generally
don’t come with the saturated fat content of whole or even reduced-fat cow’s
milk. (For the record, eight ounces of whole milk supply 22 percent of your
daily saturated fat value, while the same amount of 2 percent milk supplies 15
percent.) Since experts are still exploring the link between saturated fat and
heart disease, it may be wise for those with a history of cardiovascular
problems to opt for choices like almond, cashew, or hemp milk over cow’s milk,
at least occasionally.
On the other hand, however, few plant-based milks can hold up to the impressive eight grams of protein per cup in cow’s milk. Milks made from plants are generally low in this macronutrient. If you’re looking to boost protein to help repair tissue or build muscle, plant milks won’t add much to your diet. Still, most Americans get more than enough protein, so depending on your health and goals, this may be a non-issue.
Finally, there’s one important nutrient in plant-based milks you won’t find in the animal variety: fiber. Because of their plant origins, some nut and seed milks contain up to two grams per cup. With 95 percent of Americans lacking in fiber intake, we could all stand to add more wherever we can.
Wondering where to start
with plant-based milk? Here are five popular varieties you may want to try, as
well as a primer on how to make them yourself.
Almond milk is possibly the most popular of plant-based milks for good reason. At a relatively inexpensive price point, this variety is quite low-calorie and has a mild, slightly sweet taste. In addition to its mere 20-40 calories per cup, many almond milk brands are fortified with more calcium than cow’s milk, a comparable amount of vitamin D, and 50 percent of your daily vitamin E—a plus for skin, hair, and nails. Almond milk is, however, lacking in protein, with around a single gram per cup.
You can ensure quality and control ingredients in an almond-based beverage by making it at home. First, soak one cup of raw almonds in five cups of cool water overnight. Then blend with a pinch of salt and your choice of sweetener (such as dates, honey, maple syrup, or stevia) until smooth. Strain the mixture through a nut milk bag, cheesecloth, or thin dish towel, squeezing to remove all liquid. Store in the refrigerator and use promptly.
Another plant-based beverage that has recently skyrocketed to foodie fame is cashew milk. Its nut base means it contains plenty of healthy unsaturated fats and relatively few of the saturated kind. Like almond milk, it’s also generally low-calorie, typically around 40 to 50 calories per cup.
Nutrient content can vary widely between different brands of cashew milk, depending on how a manufacturer chooses to fortify their product. So Delicious, for example, reports its cashew milk contains 10 percent of the daily value for calcium, 30 percent DV of vitamin D, and 10 percent DV of magnesium. Pacific Foods’ cashew milk, on the other hand, does not claim to provide any vitamin D or magnesium and has only four percent of your daily calcium value. Check package labels for accurate nutrition information on any cashew milk you buy.
It’s important to note,
too, that homemade cashew milk has a dramatically different nutrition profile
than most commercial varieties. This is because, while food manufacturers
strain their cashew milk, DIY recipes usually don’t call for straining, leaving
cashews’ nutrients intact. Unstrained homemade cashew milk is far higher in
calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, and iron—but also significantly higher
in calories (about 220 per cup) and fat (about 16 grams per cup).
The process of making
your own cashew milk similar to almond milk, except for the final step of straining.
Start with one cup of cashews and soak them in four to five cups of cool water
overnight. Blend in a high-speed blender, adding sweetener or vanilla if desired,
until smooth and creamy. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Hemp seeds are known for their abundance of healthy fats. Making a milk out of these powerhouse plant products is a great way to boost your intake of the omega-3 fatty acids which are also beneficial for heart and brain health. Additionally, hemp seeds have an ideal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids, which is associated with reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases, as well as improved skin health.
Both store-bought and
homemade unsweetened hemp milk can range from about 60-80 calories and zero to
one carbohydrate per cup. Since commercially prepared hemp milk may be fortified
with vitamin D, calcium, iron, and magnesium, it tends to provide higher
amounts of these nutrients than the homemade variety.
Still, hemp milk may be
the easiest of all plant-based milks to make on your own, since hemp seeds don’t
require soaking. Simply blend one cup hemp seeds with about four cups of water,
then store in the refrigerator.
While soy milk may seem like a trendy new beverage, it has a long history in Chinese cuisine and was even promoted in the U.S. amidst the rations of World War I and II. Unlike nut milks, soy milk contains comparable calories and protein to traditional dairy, with anywhere from 110 to 130 calories and 8 grams of protein in one cup. In its “natural,” unfortified state, soy milk provides only minimal amounts of micronutrients like iron, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D – but these may be added during food processing. Along with nut milks, soy-based beverages are relatively low-carb.
Some consumers have concerns that soy milk might disrupt estrogen levels in both men and women, increasing the risk of hormone-related cancers. While it’s true that isoflavones in soy can act like estrogen in the body, according to the American Cancer Society, in human studies “the evidence does not point to any dangers from eating soy.”
To make your own soy milk, soak half a cup of white soybeans in two to four cups water overnight. Discard the water and remove the beans’ outer skin. Place peeled soybeans in a blender and blend with three cups of water until smooth. Strain through a thin dishtowel or cheesecloth, then place the strained liquid in a saucepan with one additional cup of water. Bring this mixture to a boil, skimming off any foam that rises to the top. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Finally, let cool, add any desired sweeteners or flavorings, and store in the refrigerator.
Pea milk is a relative newcomer to the plant milk world, but one with plenty of promise. According to the popular brand Ripple, pea milk takes 100 times less water to create than almond milk, making it a far more sustainable choice. Pea milk boasts an impressive nutrient profile, with 30 percent of your daily vitamin D needs, 15 percent of your daily iron, 450 milligrams of potassium, and the same amount of protein as a glass of cow’s milk. It’s also extremely allergy-friendly, as it contains zero milk, lactose, nuts, or soy.
Since peas have a strong flavor and a temperamental texture, pea milk can be difficult to make at home. The procedure involves cooking peas, blending them with water, and adding a hint of sweetness, often from dates or honey. Try this recipe from Matthew’s Manna.
If you grew up under the banner of the iconic dairy campaigns “Got milk?” or “Milk…it does a body good,” it may be hard to shake the sense that animal milk is the one true standard for pouring over cereal, adding to baked goods, or using in sauces. But plant-based milks offer a number of advantages for health—and, unlike cow’s milk, they’re easily made at home. Give these options a try to add fiber and nutrients to your diet in a lower-calorie, lower-carb package.
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Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer and nutritionist registered with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her interest in nutrition began when a health scare in her 20s made her take a hard look at her diet–and she now believes strongly in the power of healthy lifestyle as the best medicine. In addition to her work as a writer, Sarah teaches Toddler Test Kitchen, a hands-on cooking class for young children, and offers corporate wellness presentations in the Phoenix area. She lives in Mesa, AZ with her husband and three children. You can find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition information and (mostly!) healthy recipes on her blog, A Love Letter to Food, or on Facebook and Twitter.