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Which Plant-Based Milk is Best (for the Planet and for Health)

Updated: Feb 21

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Yesterday, June 5, was World Environment Day, a movement that arose in the 70's by the United Nations to generate momentum and raise awareness around growing environmental concerns, such as depletion of the ozone layer, use of toxic chemicals, increase in plastic pollution, desertification and global warming.

The General Assembly designated June 5 as World Environment Day and urged “Governments and the organizations in the United Nations system to undertake on that day every year world-wide activities reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the environment, with a view to deepening environmental awareness."

Yesterday marked 50 years of celebrating and taking action for the environment! Yet, we are still in dire straits and our planet is in emergency mode. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by 2030. Without action, exposure to air pollution beyond safe guidelines will increase by 50 per cent within the decade and plastic waste flowing into water ecosystems will nearly triple by 2040, creating an unstable and, possibly unlivable, planet for future generations.

One simple step we can take to make a big positive impact on the planet is to choose plant-based milk options over dairy milk.

The Environmental Impact of Dairy Milk Versus Plant-Based Milk

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According to Our World in Data, dairy milk has significantly higher impacts than the plant-based alternatives across all metrics, including land use, greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water use, and eutrophication (the pollution of ecosystems). In their research, they found that dairy causes around three times as much greenhouse gas emissions; uses around ten times as much land; two to twenty times as much freshwater; and creates much higher levels of eutrophication.

In 2018, a study was released finding that the world’s top five meat and dairy producers combined emit more greenhouse gases than Exxon-Mobil, Shell, or BP. The combined emissions of the top 20 meat and dairy companies surpass the emissions for entire nations, like Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia. Most of these companies are not taking adequate steps to reduce emissions, and are instead pushing for even more production. If this growth continues, meat and dairy companies could be responsible for 81% of global emissions targets as set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

If you want to reduce the environmental footprint of your diet, switching to plant-based alternatives to dairy can make a big impact!

But, Don't Adults and Children Need Dairy Milk for Protein and Calcium?

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The short answer is, no. The dairy industry has led consumers to believe that dairy builds strong bones when, in fact, the countries with the most dairy consumption also have the highest increase of fractures and osteoporosis. This is an association and not necessarily a cause and effect where dairy causes increased risk of fracture, however, it certainly isn't protecting folks from fracture risk.

One thing I cannot emphasize enough — there is a copious amount of protein in plant-based foods from beans to lentils to nuts and seeds to whole grains and even vegetables! Ask the herbivores — elephants, rhinos, gorillas, and cows — they grow and maintain their weight pretty well on plants alone.

With regard to calcium, the most important factor when it comes to getting enough calcium from foods is the absorption rate of calcium. For example, there is approximately 305 mg calcium in one cup of dairy milk, of which approximately 30% is absorbed. That means about 91 mg of calcium is absorbed from dairy milk. There is approximately 177 mg calcium in one cup of cooked kale, of which approximately 65%, or 116 mg is absorbed. As you can see, depending on the food, how much calcium is present and how much is absorbed can make a difference.

Many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and many have a similar absorption rate compared to dairy milk, about 30–35%.

What about other nutrients, like vitamin D, B12 and vitamin A? Dairy milk is fortified with vitamin D as are most plant-based milks. B12 is naturally present in dairy milk and fortified in many plant-based milks. Vitamin A is naturally present in dairy milk fat, therefore it's easily obtained from dairy milk, however, there are two caveats. First, vitamin A from animal sources has actually been associated with poor bone health, whereas the plant-based form of vitamin A (provitamin A in the form of carotenoids) has been associated with improved bone health. The second is that vitamin A is delivered through milk fat. The primary type of fat in milk, saturated fat, is associated with high cholesterol, increased risk of heart disease, increased inflammation, and poor gut health. Not to mention, animal fat also stores toxic compounds from the environment, such as dioxins, which are released when the fat is metabolized in our bodies. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states, "Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones. Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment , and they accumulate in food chains, concentrating mainly in the fatty tissue of animals."

With regard to children, research shows that children can absolutely thrive and get sufficient nutrients for their growing bodies (including their bones!) through a well-planned plant-based diet.

Can You Get Nutrients, like Protein and Calcium, from Plant-Based Milk?

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It depends on the plant milk. If optimizing nutrition is your primary goal when choosing a plant-based milk, then there are definitely some that are better than others. Soy milk is most similar to dairy milk when it comes to nutrient composition. On average, one cup of soy milk contains 7–8 grams of protein, and can contain calcium, B12, vitamin D if they're fortified (which I recommend choosing if you want an extra dose of nutrition). Eden Soy gets a special nod for its 12 grams of protein per cup! They offer an unfortified version and a fortified version, which differ significantly in their vitamins and minerals. The reason they have an unfortified version is because some consumers want minimal ingredients and no additives whatsoever. Therefore you'll see on the ingredient label, it contains only soybeans and water. The fortified version has synthetic vitamin and mineral additives. While I root for natural and simple ingredients with no additives as often as possible, I often suggest fortified plant-based milks. The fortification is similar to taking a multivitamin to get a little vitamin and mineral reassurance.

Eden soy milk nutrition facts

Whenever choosing soy milk, look for organic whenever possible since most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. By choosing organic, you'll get both Non GMO and without synthetic pesticides.

Many other plant-based milks will have 3 grams of protein or less unless they advertise high protein, which often means that they add pea or other type of processed protein to the milk as a part of the manufacturing process. This is really marketing to the high protein consumer movement and is not milk I recommend because there is more processing involved, the protein added is often of lesser quality than naturally containing protein, and a majority of us are not protein deficient, getting plenty of protein from the foods we eat.

Sugar in Plant-Based Milk

Unless choosing unsweetened, plant milks may have added sugar and the amount can be high. One cup of Almond Milk can have up to 7 grams of added sugar. Chocolate flavored Blue Diamond Almond Milk has 19 grams of added sugar per cup! Considering most of us should be getting less than 30 grams of sugar a day or less (based on the American Heart Association guidelines), that's a lot of sugar in just one serving.

Are Fillers and Emulsifiers Bad for You?

You may notice some unfamiliar ingredients listed in the ingredient label like gellan gum, guar gum, or locust bean gum. These are various types of plant-derived ingredients that keep the milk particles in suspension and help to create the creamy and silky mouthfeel, making it more appealing from a texture perspective. Gellan gum is produced by bacteria; guar gum comes from guar beans; and locust bean gum comes from the carob tree. For the most part, these emulsifiers have been shown to be safe for consumption, but some studies show that they may cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some individuals, especially those who may have underlying gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel disease. If you find that you experience bloating or gassiness after consuming plant-milk, check the label of your milk to see if it contains emulsifiers and try choosing a plant milk without emulsifiers to see if your symptoms improve. A few plant milk varieties that don't contain emulsifiers include Oatly, Elmhurst, and Eden Soy.

One particular emulsifier that may cause gastrointestinal side effects and has been associated with certain types of cancer is seaweed-derived carrageenan. Since research emerged about this emulsifier's potential adverse health outcomes, most brands have removed it from their milk. The evidence is inconclusive and more research needs to be done, but you may want to avoid it, if possible.

So, Which Plant-Based Milk is Best?

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The plant-based milk that is best for you is the one that you enjoy the most! In summary, from a nutritional perspective, I recommend:

  • Choosing unsweetened plant milk to avoid added sugars, which can be inflammatory.

  • If you want a little nutritional reassurance, look for plant milk fortified with vitamins and minerals, like B12, calcium, and vitamin D.

  • If you experience gastrointestinal issues, look for plant milk that doesn't contain emulsifiers.

From a culinary perspective, simply select the milk that suits you best and that you enjoy the most! For example, I prefer either unsweetened soy milk or oat milk for my morning matcha latte because they're thick and creamy. However, if I'm using a plant-based milk in a recipe where it's mixed with other ingredients and the creaminess matters less, then almond or coconut milk may do the trick (they tend to be less creamy and have a higher water content). If I'm adding apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to plant milk to make a plant-based buttermilk, then I will use soy milk since the protein and fat in the soy milk help the milk to curdle like traditional buttermilk. It really depends on your personal preference and how you plan to use the milk ... which brings me to the question. Which is your favorite plant-based milk and how do you use it? Please share in the comments below!


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