Choosing between milks used to mean one per cent, two per cent, homogenized or skim. But animal milk consumption has been on the decline in Canada for the last 30 years, and "is cow's milk OK?" is now a regular coffee shop refrain. Soy and almond milks, once rare alternatives to cow's milk, are now the mainstream norms to less-common dairy alternatives like cashew, hemp, coconut and oat milks. The latter in particular seems to be having a moment right now: searches for oat milk are up 186 per cent on Pinterest.
But how healthy are these plant-based milks, and what should you know about them before you swap out cow's milk completely? We asked Nadine Moukheiber, a registered dietitian based in Montreal, what everyone should know about oat milk and similar plant-based drink options.
Oat milk is thicker and creamier than many silk alternatives, which makes it a good option for lattes. It also has an almost nutty taste. Most milk alternatives are made by crushing the base product (in this case, oats), soaking them in water for a few hours, and then straining out the liquid. Because oats are water-soluble, they absorb more water than almonds or cashews, Moukheiber explains.
"When you strain oats, there's more of the taste that comes through," she says. "These other foods ... when you strain them, there's not much to the water. It's really more like flavoured water."
Nutritionally, alternative milks are very different
Many of Moukheiber's clients assume oat milk must have the same nutritional value as cow's milk. They "don't know it's low in protein," she says. "They think it's just a substitute to dairy." But "just like other plant-based beverages, it's not comparable to real milk."
While plant-based milks offer a little more fibre than cow's milk, the protein levels are much lower in alternatives: a regular glass of milk has nearly nine grams of protein, oat has a mere two to four. Soy, pea and hemp milks are the closest in terms of protein, with about seven to eight grams. A glass of almond, cashew, coconut or rice milk generally has one gram of protein or less.
"We know dairy is not necessary for good health," she says. But if you're cutting it out, you should make sure you're getting protein somewhere else.
It's also important that consumers know that vitamins and minerals that are natural in cow's milk are added to plant-based alternatives, and that our bodies process those differently. "They're fortified in vitamins and minerals that are synthetic, so the body doesn't have quite the same ability to assimilate all of these nutrients," she explains. So even if the rates of Vitamin A, Vitamin B, magnesium and calcium look comparable to cow's milk, "the nutritional makeup is not quite complete."
In Quebec, where Moukheiber practices, milk alternatives can't actually use the word "milk" in their packaging for fear that consumers will assume they have the same nutritional makeup — instead, you'll find "soy beverage." The word "milk" can only be used to describe liquid from an animal that lactates, according to official regulations.
"Some people say, 'How silly do you think people are, to believe that an almond might be mistaken for real milk?' But you'd be surprised how people are like, 'Yeah, there's milk in almonds!'"
Some other things to watch out for
In addition to make sure to get nutrients and protein from other sources if you cut out cow's milk, Moukheiber says there are a few other important things to watch out for.
One is gluten, particularly if you have Celiac disease. Oats don't contain gluten, and most nuts don't either. But because some of these milk alternatives are produced in facilities that do have gluten products, contamination is likely. If you're someone who gets really sick when you eat gluten, cow's milk might be safer, Moukheiber says.
Also, "anything that's plant-based is more at risk of being contaminated by pesticide and insecticide," she says. "It's something to keep in mind when buying these alternative beverages."
The environmental impact isn't as clear-cut as you might think
A lot of people switch to milk alternatives because they're concerned about the amount of methane produced by dairy farming, and what that might do to the environment. But those alternatives can cause a lot of unintended negative consequences to the environment, too.
When demand for milk alternatives goes up suddenly, farmers will scramble to meet demand by overproducing crops like almonds and soybeans. Growing one single plant creates a monoculture, which is more appealing to some kinds of weeds and insects than polycultures, and so they require more pesticide, which can pollute the air and water.
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And the problem is amplified with these drinks, Moukheiber explains. "We're not even using the almonds, we're using the water coming from the almonds," she said. "I say almonds, but it's the same for cashew, coconut, and oat."
Because all those oats or almonds or cashews are just thrown out after they've been chopped up, soaked and then strained. In theory it could be put back into the soil, she said, but it often isn't.
Essentially, eating ethically is really difficult — and if you choose to cut out cow's milk for ethical reasons, make sure to learn as much as you can about the alternatives.
CORRECTION - April 20, 2019: An earlier version of this story stated that plant-based milk alternatives contain less fibre than cow's milk when they in fact contain more; the story also previously stated oat milk's protein offering was two grams per serving; it can range from two to four.
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