Is oat milk and other plant-based drinks healthier than dairy?

Plank milks may be better for the environment but are they actually healthier for us than dairy? We look at the nutritional facts behind oat, soy, coconut and pea drinks to see how they match up to cow’s milk.

Almost every coffee shop these days offers a non-dairy milk alternative. It’s as common to hear someone order an oat flat white as it is a standard dairy latte. We’re living in a different dietary world to the one in which I turned vegan four years ago.

Plant-based drinkers like me no longer have to rely on boring old soy (which often splits in coffee). We can brew up barista-level froth thanks to Oatly and Minor Figures, enjoy protein-rich bowls of cereal with Mighty Pea and save cash by buying supermarket own-brand almond milk. 

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It’ll come as no surprise to learn that UK sales of plant-based milks  are at an all time high; they jumped by 15% to £278 million between 2018 and 2019 – doubling to £73 million, according to data firm Nielsen. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve chosen to drink oat over cow’s milk for environmental reasons. But if you’ve decided to ditch dairy in a bid to be more ‘healthy’, how much better off are you drinking plant-based alternatives? Is oat, hemp or almond really more nutritious than cow or goat?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that some people can’t have dairy. It’s not a choice, it’s a non-negotiable medical or ethical decision. In South America, Africa and Asia, over 50% of the population is lactose-intolerant, with some Asian countries reporting up to 100%. What we’re here to debunk is the non-medical health claims that many people on both sides of the dairy-non-dairy argument often espouse.

Dairy and plant milks have different NUTRIENT profiles

A 2016 review, published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research, assessed the “totality of scientific research” into whether dairy products are good or bad for human health. It acknowledged that a rising skepticism about the health benefits of dairy had led to an increased intake of plant-based drinks, but that evidence suggested drinking dairy products was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and stroke. Dairy also wasn’t associated with any cancers.

It concluded that because cow’s milk and plant-based drinks are “completely different foods, an evidence-based conclusion on the health value of the plant-based drinks requires more studies in humans.” In other words, while dairy isn’t scary (at least from a health perspective), it’s hard to position it against oat and hemp until more studies are conducted on the latter. 

Registered dietitian Harpreet Sohal agrees with that study, telling Stylist: “The nutrient profile of plant milks can vary significantly, depending on what they’re made from, different brands and whether they have been fortified (ie had vitamins and minerals added to them) or not. Many plant milks contain less saturated fat and more phytochemicals (ie beneficial plant-based chemicals) than dairy milk but less protein, vitamins and minerals.”

Dairy, she says, is not something to be feared: “Milk is a rich source of nutrients including protein, fat, energy and a range of vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B2, B5, B12, iodine, calcium, phosphorus and potassium.”

Dairy isn’t unhealthy but there’s not enough research on potential issues

Why then are many of us keen to avoid the stuff, if we’re doing so for health reasons? When I ask if there is any truth to the claims that dairy can cause inflammation and acne, Sohal explains that while saturated fat, in general, is linked to inflammation, “the evidence linking dairy and increased inflammation is not clear cut,” meaning that we can’t say for certain if dairy causes inflammation.

In terms of skin health, again, “the research is controversial so we cannot be certain that dairy causes or increases acne as a fact for everyone. It is very much about what you feel works best for your skin, on an individual level.” 

If you do live with acne and haven’t found that dairy actively aggravates it, Sohal says that she “would not recommend excluding it from your diet. Cutting out dairy without adequate knowledge could lead to people missing out on key nutrients and deficiencies in vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, calcium and iodine. If you are considering trialling a dairy-free diet, seek advice from a dietitian to ensure you’re not missing out.”

Are plant miks more nutritious than dairy? Not necessarily.

Not all plants are created NUTRITIONALLY equal

Another study, this time from the Journal of Food Science and Technology, looked at the pros and cons of almond, soy, rice and coconut milk. It found the following:

  • Almond: tastes good and is low in calories – but is unsuitable for people with almond allergies.
  • Soy: rich in protein but may not taste as delicious and may be unsuitable for anyone with a soy allergy.
  • Rice: holds its own in terms of energy provision but it tends to be rich in sugar.
  • Coconut: low in calories and can taste good, but it’s rich in saturated fats and contains no protein (which is one of the main benefits of drinking dairy milk).

Researchers concluded that soy was actually the best alternative for replacing cow’s milk in the human diet because it tends to be the most nutrient-dense drink. It’s lowest in cholesterol and saturated fats while offering more calcium, protein, zinc and carbs than the next best thing, almond milk. 

Soy actually has slightly more protein (9g) per cup than one cup of full-fat cow’s milk (8g), while almond offers more calcium (560mg versus 425mg). 

Go for unsweetened soy milk if you are dairy-free

However, even once you’ve decided on which plant to drink, not all oat or almond milks are made equal. Again, it’s not that dairy milk is ‘unhealthy’ (it has a strong nutritional profile) or that plant milks are ‘healthy’ (many plant milks have sugar added to them), but some milks really are more nutritious than others. 

“When recommending plant milks, I generally suggest trying unsweetened soya milk or pea milk because these have the most similar protein content and profile to dairy milk,” Sohal explains. “Oat milks are lower in protein, but there is even less protein in nut milks (eg almond, hazelnut and cashew), hemp milk and coconut milk, compared to the rest.

When choosing a plant milk, go for one that is unsweetened and fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and ideally iodine. Many will have vitamin D added in too.” 

But avoid organic plant-based milks

Sohal has been warning people that organic plant-based milks are not fortified with vitamins and minerals that are found in non-organic milks. 

“Organic plant milks and yoghurts are not usually fortified because the European Union organic food regulations have strict rules about adding vitamins and minerals to organic products.It is not mandatory to add these important vitamins and minerals to plant milks, so try and choose the non-organic versions to ensure you’re not missing out on key nutrients,” Sohal explains.

It’s for that reason that she recommends avoiding organic milks and going for unsweetened, fortified options. While leading brands tend to be fortified, she says that supermarket own-brand milks tend to have added vitamins and minerals as well. 

When buying plant milks, you want to look at whether any sugar has been added and what nutrients it’s been fortified with. Look out for added:

  • Calcium and vitamin B2
  • Vitamin B12
  • Iodine
  • Vitamin D

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