Which plant-based ‘milk’ is the healthiest?

Consider a number of issues when looking for dairy milk substitutes.

Nutritional profile: Plant-based ‘milks’ vary a lot in their macronutrient (proteins, carbohydrates, fats ) and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals ) content.

One glass of plant ‘milk’ a day will not affect macronutrient intake. However, if you have specific needs (eg, athletes, convalescents, adolescents ) or drink more than a glass daily, it is important to check ingredients, as some offerings are richer in certain vitamins (eg, almond and hazelnut ‘milks’ have higher content of vitamin E ). Some contain specific health-promoting components, such as beta-glucans, sugars found in the cell walls of bacteria, other microorganisms, and cereals like oats, researched for their beneficial action on cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

Some people are concerned about calcium intake if they do not consume dairy, but research points to calcium/magnesium balance being more important. Almond and cashew ‘milks’ are high in magnesium; if you make your own, add a few dates for sweetness as they have high magnesium content.

Added ingredients: Be wary of added ingredients such as sunflower oil in plant ‘milks’. It offers creamy texture, but is high in omega 6, which become inflammatory in high amounts. Other ‘hidden’ ingredients include naturally high arsenic content in rice ‘milk’ and pesticide residues in non-organic products.

Allergenic potential: People with nut allergies may not be able to have milk substitutes, such as almond or soy. It is possible that any initial improvement experienced when one starts drinking milk substitutes is because of the placebo effect, and it takes time for the body to become sensitised to proteins in the substitute, which then might manifest as allergy.

If you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, you need to ensure as wide a variety of plant-based foods as possible — organic, locally produced, and seasonal. In addition, be mindful of suitable preparation of plant-based foods: grains, seeds, and legumes need pre-soaking, fermenting, and/or sprouting for best use of nutrients. Fermenting vegetables, especially brassicas, increases vitamin C and beneficial microorganism content. The support of a qualified naturopathic nutritionist would also be beneficial.

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Elle Fox is a naturopath, College of Naturopathic Medicine graduate, author, and speaker.

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