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Natural Awakenings

Plant-Based Milk Alternatives: Benefits for People and the Planet

Jan 31, 2024 09:29AM ● By Carrie Jackson
Plant-based milk

Natalia Klenova/CanvaPro

While plant-based milks have been around for centuries, they have historically played second fiddle to other dairy alternatives, but not anymore. As people are becoming more conscious of the impact their food choices have on their health and the planet, plant-based milk has turned into a mainstay in most grocery stores. Touting sustainability benefits, a creamy texture and pleasing flavors, soy, oat, almond, cashew and even macadamia nut milks are having their moment.   

According to the Good Food Institute, 41 percent of American households purchased plant-based milk in 2022. Most major milk brands, such as Nestlé, are offering plant-based alternatives, while specialty companies like Elmhurst 1925and Eden Foods are continually expanding their selection.

“Plant-based dairy is now more than 15 percent of the milk industry,” says Elysabeth Alfano, co-founder and CEO of VegTech Invest, a firm that manages the first exchange-traded fund dedicated to plant-based companies. “This is driven by the quality of the products, including oat, almond, soy, pea and hemp milks as proven options. With 65 percent of people worldwide and more than 80 percent of African Americans and more than 90 percent of Asian Americans being lactose intolerant, plant-based milk is a great alternative.”

When selecting beverage options, many consumers also weigh a company’s ethical choices. Alfano predicts the beginning of the end of traditional factory farming, saying, “People are seeing how inefficient and harmful meat production is and are making the connection between saving the environment and their lifestyle choices.” 

Leah Hoxie, senior vice president of innovation at Oatly North America, observes, “People opt for nondairy milk for a variety of reasons that are usually personal and nuanced. These can include allergies, nutrition, ethical and environmental concerns, and, of course, taste. Oatly makes nondairy milk alternatives that have the same creamy taste, frothy feel and functionality as cow’s milk while also generally having a lower climate impact. We’re also seeing generational differences in milk preferences, with a recent Oatly flash poll finding that 54 percent of Gen Z and 49 percent of Millennials prefer plant-based milk to cow’s milk.”

Like many other plant-based companies, Oatly has expressed a commitment to creating lasting environmental change. “With roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from the food system, and about half of those emissions coming from the livestock or the animal-based sector, the greatest impact we at Oatly can have as a company is to convert people from dairy milk to oat milk. Our research shows that Oatly Barista sold in the U.S. has a 46 percentlower climate impact than comparable cow’s milk, supporting our larger mission to make it easy for people to eat better and live healthier lives without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process,” explains Hoxie. 

While plant-based milk alternatives may tout health benefits, the specific ingredients and processing methods play a role in their nutritional value. Just because something is plant-based doesn’t automatically make it healthier. “There are misconceptions that either nondairy milks are automatically less healthy than cow milk or that they are inherently more nutritious, but the truth is it depends on what’s in the milk,” says Taylor Wolfram, a registered dietitian who specializes in vegan nutrition. 

Plant-based dairy alternatives have differing nutritional advantages, and it is best for consumers to make their own comparison. “Soy and pea milk—the protein superstars of plant milks—contain some fat and, when fortified, are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D,” Wolfram explains. “Hemp has a little less protein, and oat and almond milks are very low in protein. Hemp milk is rich in ALA [alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants]. Nondairy milks may or may not contain added sugars and fats or be fortified, so it is best to check the nutrition facts panel to see what levels of nutrients each specific product contains.”

Ultimately, the best plant-based dairy may be the one we love to consume. “Enjoyment and taste are highly subjective experiences,” Wolfram says. “I encourage folks to try different options and find what they like.” 

Carrie Jackson is an Illinois-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com

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