The truth about plant-based milks – what is actually in them?

In the European Union (EU), plant-based milks must call themselves plant-based drinks – in recognition that they are not milk.  They are a juice from a plant, manufactured to look like milk in colour and texture. 

Dairy milk contains one ingredient; milk.  Nothing is added.  It is a natural product.  Technology is used to remove harmful bacteria, but each fresh bottle contains only one ingredient; Milk.  Dairy milk you buy in Australia, comes direct from Australian cows.

What about plant-based milk alternatives?  Manufactured in factories, plant-based foods are not natural products.  If plant-based milks were natural, they would only one or two ingredients, such as oats and water.  That would be it.  But that’s not it.  If you’ve ever looked at the label of a plant-based milk at the supermarket, you’ll know that this is not the case.  Most plant-based milks contain a long list of ingredients, including salt, sugar and oil. 

Plant-based milks contain added Sugar, Salt and Oil

For general good health and weight control, it is recommended to avoid foods that have added sugars, added salt, or additional calories through added oils.  When these sorts of ingredients are added into a food during processing, they can change what starts as a healthy product (e.g. a legume such as soy or a nut such as almonds) to a less healthy option. 

To keep our weight in a healthy range, we should all reduce our intake of ‘added’ sugars as much as possible.  These are sugars that don’t occur naturally in the food but are added during processing to make the product sweeter.  Most plant-based milks, especially those that are barista versions or ‘original’ versions, contain added sugar.   Some of them even contain more than one added sugar.  And don’t be fooled by the notion that raw sugar or cane sugar is any healthier than standard sugar.  They are the one and the same and both are found in plant-based milks.

Similarly, to help reduce cholesterol, it is recommended we choose products that are low in added salt.  Plant-based milk contain added salt, up to 50mg/100ml in some options.  Dairy milk, on the other hand, does not contain any added salt. 

Why do plant-based milk contain SO many ingredients?

The ingredient list of most plant-based milks can be long.  Very long.  Many of the ingredients that are added to plant-based milk are done so to create a product that has a texture and colour similar to milk.  However, there is one vital, and incredibly important aspect that plant-based milks rarely achieve:  Similar health and nutrition benefits. 

Dairy is an excellent source of calcium, fat-soluble vitamins, B2, B12, phosphate and zinc.  All these are needed by our bodies for healthy skin, healthy cell development, strong immune systems and wound healing.  Dairy is also an excellent source of protein, which is important for muscle repair and growth.  

In comparison, plant-based milks do not contain the health benefits dairy milk does.  In fact, most milks are such poor protein sources (<1g/100ml for many milks) that they are labelled ‘not suitable for children under 5’, as they are such poor sources of nutrition.  Food Standards Australia note;

“Generally, plant-based milk alternatives don’t have the same nutrient content as cow or goat milk. Milk generally contains higher levels of protein and a wider range of vitamins and minerals”. (Source: Australian Government Food Standards)

Only when true allergy exists should cows’ milk be substituted for a plant-based alternative for children under 5, and even this should be done in consultation with a Registered Dietitian. 

Organic plant-based milks have the poorest nutrition.

An organic plant-based milk often has few ingredients (4 or 5) compared to other non-organic options.  This might make it seem a better option, as it has less additives, however that is the problem itself.  As plant-based milks contain no natural calcium, B2 or B12, they must be added for the product to be a good option for health.  Most organic brands do not add any vitamins or minerals, which make them a poorer nutritional choice then there non-organic competitors.

The plant-based health effects….watered down.

There is no denying that soy, or almonds, or oats are good for us.  However, many milks are watered down to the point where they can contain as little as 2% of the actual product.  In fact, 2% almonds equates to just over one raw almond per 100g of milk.  Just one!  If not fortified with any additional vitamins or minerals, your wallet, health and the planet would be better off if you avoided the almond milk and just ate two almonds and drank 100ml of water. 

Plant-based milks can contain unwanted hidden ingredients.

Did you know that Rice-milk is a source of arsenic? Arsenic is toxic, and subsequently rice-milk is never recommended for children under five, even if they are allergic to cows’ milk (other plant-based milks are used instead). 

Similarly, carrageenan, an additive found in many plant-based milks is also controversial as it has been shown to cause intestinal inflammation and disrupt normal skin cell function. 

Dairy milk, on the other hand, has research showing health benefits to our immune system, to our cardiovascular health and can impact our weight in a positive way. 

Plant-based milks aren’t always healthier for the planet

Dairy is often touted as a product that has environmental consequences however the environmental impact of plant-based milk is often kept on the quiet.  Almonds require a lot of water.  In fact, it takes almost 57L of water to produce just 16 almonds1

According to the University of California San Francisco Office of Sustainability,

“there aren’t enough nutritional benefits [of almond milk] to justify the gallons of water necessary to grow almonds”.

In addition to the water-cost of producing plant-based milks, many plant-based milks are not made in Australia.  This means they are shipped long distances from factories in other countries to get to us.  Maritime transport accounts for up to 4% of all climate change emissions, particularly carbon dioxide3.  Bonsoy is made in Japan.  Oatly is made in Sweden.  Almond Breeze is made in America.  The hidden (or true) environmental cost of products as a result of international shipping is not truly reflected when environmental concerns are often discussed. 

To reduce our carbon footprint, we are encouraged to buy locally.

Wholey Milk is not just Australian made, it is Australian owned.  It sources its dairy from Australian cows, supporting Australian farmers and their families.  It uses Haelen technology to make fresh dairy milk even better for us.  For anyone who can tolerate dairy, it is a positive health choice that provides a great source of vitamins and minerals our bodies need every day.  Plant-based milks are not milks.  They can never be milks, but a watered-down juice, exactly at the EU has labelled them. 

(Sources: Australian Government Food Standards [written June 2016, accessed Feb 2021], University of California San Francisco Office of Sustainability, Environmental Impact of Shipping, Wikipedia)

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The Haelen® method treats milk with a gentle cold method rather than through intense heat through pasteurisation, meaning improved flavour and nutrition which is lost to traditional processing.

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