The widespread growth of highly popular alternatives to dairy milk is evident in the grocery store, both in the refrigerated section and on the shelf. Given the myriad of choices, what is the best plant-based milk? Read on to discover the pros and cons of soy, almond, rice, and oat milk.
Criteria for the Best Plant-Based Milk
- Nutrition profile
- Environmental impact/safety
Using Cow’s Milk as the Benchmark
When my family experimented with dairy alternatives, we used 2% organic cow’s milk as a way to evaluate the criteria for the best plant-based milk.
All cow’s milk, except for skim, has a full-bodied taste due to its fat content.
Cow’s milk has a beneficial nutrition profile that includes protein, calcium, and Vitamin D. Importantly, non-flavored milk does not have any added sugars, although it does contain lactose, a naturally occurring sugar that some individuals do not tolerate well. (Note: lactose-free dairy milk is an option.)
Dairy cows — their burps and their manure — have a direct impact on climate change. Cows contribute to global greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Water consumption is also an issue. To produce ONE GLASS of cow’s milk, it takes 30 GALLONS of water.
Comparison of Plant-Based Milks
The most popular plant-based milks are: almond, soy, rice, and oat. All are lactose-free. Let’s compare each dairy alternative against the cow’s-milk benchmark criteria to determine what may be the best option.
Most commercially-made almond milk is watery and flavorless. More like essence of almonds as opposed to the rich, robust taste you might expect. Come to find out, many of the mainstream brands are made with 2% almonds, 98% water. Due to the high water content, using store-bought almond milk as a dairy substitute in baking recipes may be problematic.
The low percentage of almonds per serving equates to minimal protein, and none of the healthy fat that you would benefit from if you had grabbed a handful of almonds instead.
In addition, many almond milks (other than unsweetened) have significant amounts of added sugar, especially if you consume several glasses per day. Also, most ingredient lines include gums, and sometimes starches, both not beneficial ingredients.
California is the top commercial producer of almonds, both domestically and around the world.
Of all the plant-based milks, almond milk needs the most water to produce. This is especially problematic in California where persistent drought conditions exist. To produce ONE GLASS of almond milk, it takes 23 GALLONS of water.
Before delving into the criteria for evaluating soy milk, let’s address the health controversy circulating on the internet about soy.
Here’s an in-depth article that sets the record straight. The upshot is that organic or non-GMO certified whole soy foods are beneficial. The key is look for the organic/non-GMO certifications, and to purchase soy products derived from whole soybeans. Avoid plant-based products made from soy protein isolates.
Soy milk doesn’t taste like dairy milk, but once you acclimate to the taste, this plant-based beverage owes its mouthfeel to predominately unsaturated fat content. Of particular note, soy milk works well in baking recipes as a dairy substitute.
Organic, unsweetened soy milk (made from whole soybeans with no added sugar) has a solid nutrition profile.
Of all the plant-based milks, it’s the highest in protein, and contains all nine essential amino acids.
A glass of organic soy milk provides satiety from both the protein and the predominately “good” fat.
Like almond milk, some soy milk brands do include gums, and carrageenan, a potentially inflammatory ingredient. However, one of the cleanest label brands I’ve found is Edensoy, made only from purified water and organic soybeans. I’ve never tried it so let me know what you think.
The good news is that soy milk does not strain our water resources as much as dairy and almond milk. It takes 9 gallons of water to produce one glass of soy milk.
The issue with soybean production in the United States however, is that the overwhelming majority of soybeans are genetically engineered. Most genetically engineered soy is sprayed with glyphosate and herbicides; these chemicals are linked to cancer, as evidenced by thousands of cancer lawsuits.
To avoid issues with genetic modification, look for organic or non-GMO certified brands.
Rice milk is watery, and has a mild taste with light overtones of sweetness. I would not recommend rice milk as a dairy substitute in baking.
If you have a dairy, nut, or soy allergy, rice milk is a suitable alternative.
This plant-based milk is high in carbohydrates (not good for those with diabetes), and extremely low in protein. Many store brands add fat in the form of canola and/or safflower and/or sunflower oil to the ingredient line, most likely for mouthfeel.
As with the other plant-based milks, choose commercial brands that are unsweetened, and definitely avoid the addition of brown rice syrup.
Rice, the world’s second largest crop, emits methane just like cows. Who knew, right?
New research indicates that as the world warms, the methane emissions from rice paddies increase, and the crop yield decreases.
Rice may also be problematic from a safety perspective due to its arsenic content. I talked about this issue previously in my gluten free blog post.
Most of the arsenic is concentrated in the rice bran. This means that brown rice, with its higher fiber content, contains more arsenic than white rice. And since rice bran is often used to make rice drinks, the consumption of this plant-based milk poses a risk, especially for infants and young children.
Oat milk made its debut in coffee shops as a better-tasting, fully-foamable alternative to other plant-based drinks. Although there’s a slight oat-y aftertaste, some oat milks taste more like cow’s milk with a sweeter, full-bodied mouthfeel.
Lower-ranking oat milks seem less desirable. Many of them look unappetizing (grey, beige), taste watery, and have a strong oat flavor.
Before purchasing oat milk, it’s important to read the ingredient line.
Always choose oat milk made from organic oats.
The cleanest oat milks are made solely from organic oats and water. However, several oat milks contain oils, gums, and emulsifiers.
If protein and vitamin/mineral fortification are important to you, check the label. Many oat milks do not offer that benefit, and therefore don’t have the same nutrient profile as cow’s milk or other plant-based milk alternatives.
As always, look for brands that taste creamy without added sugar.
In the previous section, I recommended purchasing oat milk made from organic oats.
Why organic? To avoid oats sprayed with the cancer-linked glyphosate that harms humans and the environment.
The weedkiller glyphosate is the active ingredient in the widely used herbicide called Roundup.
Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical company, added Roundup to its product portfolio when it purchased Monsanto in 2018. Bayer maintains that Roundup is safe. And so do large food industry companies that make oat-based products. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of cancer lawsuits have been filed.
Bayer settled these non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma claims for more than $10 billion. This huge settlement included no admission of liability or wrongdoing on the part of Bayer.
Conclusion – What IS the Best Plant-Based Milk?
Researching and writing this article made me realize that we don’t have easy choices.
There are major forces at play that are inextricably linked: human health, environmental health, climate change, and regulatory agencies plus food/chemical companies that deny culpability.
Here’s my take: organic soy milk and organic oat milk may be the best plant-based milk choices for taste and environmental reasons. Organic soy milk also has the best nutrient profile.
Almond milk is a water hog. Nutrition-wise, there’s such a low percentage of almonds in almond milk that it’s better to eat a handful of almonds.
Rice milk is high in carbohydrates with little to no protein. Add in the issues with arsenic, and you may be better saving rice consumption for entrees.
Let me know what you think is the best plant-based milk in our private Lady Moxy facebook group.