The Complete Guide to Plant-Based Milk

The Complete Guide to Plant-Based Milk

Swapping out cow’s milk for lactose-free vegan milk made from plants is probably the easiest change you can make for animals and the planet. Vegan author Carol J. Adams even features this switch as Daily Action #1 in her book Protest Kitchen. These milks are made from a wide range of beans, nuts, seeds, and grains. Boxes, bottles, cartons, and cans of plant-based milk can be found in grocery stores across the world, and new flavors and brands are showing up on the shelves all the time. I regularly stock my fridge with vanilla, chocolate, unsweetened, and plain flavors depending on what taste I’m craving and what I plan on cooking or baking. You can even make your own plant milks at home by soaking unsalted nuts like almonds and cashews, seeds, or grains in water overnight, blending them, and straining the mixture through a cheesecloth.

But maybe you don’t know what plant-based milk to try, or if plant-based milks can stack up to the nutrition in cow’s milk. What vegan milk should you use for what in the kitchen? What are the environmental impacts of different plant-based milks? Is soy bad for you? Read on to answer these and other questions!

Why Drink Plant-Based Milk?

For the Animals!

Some dairy cows are raised and live on farms where they have access to pasture and grass to graze, but many cows spend their entire lives in close quarters to each other on Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms. Some of these factory farms contain thousands of cows, and many of the large dairy operations mix antibiotics and growth hormones into their animals’ feed to artificially increase milk production and decrease the risk of infectious diseases spreading between their packed cows.

A ‘small to medium’ sized dairy cow farm I visited in Pennsylvania in 2018

Cows do not produce milk unless they have been pregnant, and they begin to lactate in preparation for their newborn baby. But 97% of calves are taken away from their mothers within 24 hours of their birth after their nine month gestation period. Every year around 21 million calves are slaughtered globally for veal or cheap beef. Some of the female calves will be raised on milk replacer away from their mothers and eventually exploited in the same system. But some of them, as well as most male calves, which are considered useless to the dairy industry, will be killed for veal. The veal industry would not exist as it does today without the dairy industry to produce surplus calves as cows are artificially inseminated every year.

A one-day old calf that had already been separated from his or her mother, 2018
A young female calf from another dairy farm in Pennsylvania that I visited in 2016

A cow’s natural lifespan is 20-25 years, but the strain and stress of the dairy industry overwork their bodies and cause their milk production to decrease at around 4-5 years old, at which point they are slaughtered.

For the Planet!

The dairy industry is a major source of methane emissions, which strengthen the greenhouse effect and contribute to climate change. Methane is actually seven times as potent as carbon dioxide. There are approximately 270 million dairy cows in the world, and they and their manure produce a lot of methane. Without proper handling, manure can leach into local bodies of water and degrade the quality of those water resources. Global demand for dairy continues to increase as the human population grows, incomes rise, more people move to cities, and Chinese and Indian diets shift to higher animal product consumption. The environmental harms from the dairy industry will only become more prevalent if this trend continues.

Plant-Based Milk Options:

There are so many varieties of plant-based milk. No matter your allergies, budget, or preferences, I’m positive there’s a non-dairy milk out there for everyone. Plant-based milk can be made out of:

  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Coconuts
  • Flax
  • Hazelnuts
  • Hempseed
  • Macadamia Nuts
  • Oats
  • Pea Protein
  • Peanuts
  • Pecans
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Soy
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • TigerNuts
  • Walnuts

These milks contain varying levels of nutrition, though most brands contain at least as much calcium as cow milk, and are suited to different uses in the kitchen. Vegan.com suggests purchasing plant-based milk that delivers at least 5 grams of protein per serving. To lower your calorie and sugar intake, choose unsweetened non-dairy milks.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of plant-based milk:

plant based milks
Image found on freefromharm.org, by veganstreet.com

Almond Milk

This is probably the most popular vegan milk on the market, and it’s considered the plant-based milk most similar to dairy milk in flavor. It’s great in smoothies and desserts because of its slightly sweet flavor, but lacks the protein found in pea and soy milk.

Almond Milk Brands: Blue Diamond’s Almond Breeze, Califia Farms, DREAMElmhurstPacific Foods, Silk, So Delicious, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday

Cashew Milk

After oat milk, cashew milk is my favorite plant-based milk. It’s less sweet than almond milk and has a creamy texture, so it can work great in a savory dish.

Cashew Milk Brands: Califia Farms, DREAMElmhurstPacific Foods, Silk, So Delicious

Coconut Milk

This plant-based milk tends to contain more fat than other types. It works well in baked goods, savory sauces, and smoothies, but avoid its use in puddings and custards since the fat could separate and produce a greasy texture. Coconut milk also has a slight coconut flavor.

Coconut Milk Brands: Califia Farms, DREAMPacific Foods, Rebel KitchenSilk, So Delicious, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday

Hemp Milk

Hempseed milk has a creamy texture and a very distinctive flavor. I’d suggest using it in savory dishes and sauces rather than desserts. It’s great for meeting your daily Omega-3 Fat requirements.

Hemp Milk Brands: Pacific Foods, Tempt Hemp

Oat Milk

This is my personal favorite for drinking. I was first introduced to it in Denmark by my vegan host sister. It has a mild flavor and the consistency of low-fat cow’s milk. I’ve even made it myself!

Oat Milk Brands: Califia Farms, ElmhurstOatly, Pacific Foods, Silk

Pea Protein Milk

This milk can be used in the same scenarios as soy milk and contains the equivalent amount of protein found in cow’s milk. This particular unsweetened pea protein milk is available at Target and Whole Foods and has more protein than soy milk and 50% more calcium and iron than cows’ milk.

Pea Protein Milk Brands: Ripple

Rice Milk

Rice milk often has a thin consistency and a sweet taste. I’d recommend using it in smoothies or oatmeal, and to avoid using it in baked goods or savory sauces.

Rice Milk Brands: DREAMPacific Foods, Trader Joe’s

Soy Milk

Milk made from soy provides about the same amount of protein that you would gain from cow’s milk, and is great for use in baking, puddings and custards, mashed potatoes, savory sauces, smoothies, and coffee.

Soy Milk Brands: DREAMEdensoy, Pacific Foods, Silk, Trader Joe’s, WestSoy, Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday

Where to Find Other Types of Plant-Based Milks

Flax Milk Brands: FlaxUSA, Good Karma

Hazelnut Milk Brands: ElmhurstPacific Foods

Macadamia Milk Brands: Milkadamia, Royal Hawaiian Orchards, Suncoast Gold

Peanut Milk Brands: Elmhurst

TigerNut Milk or Horchata Brands: Gemini

Walnut Milk Brands: Elmhurst

Is Soy Bad for You?

These two YouTube videos (here and here) from Unnatural Vegan was really helpful in unpacking the myths surrounding soy and breast cancer, along with other ailments that some individuals have attributed to soy. Soybeans are uniquely rich in isoflavones, which are plant chemicals also known as phytoestrogens or plant estrogens. Isoflavones can bind to the same hormone receptors in our bodies that female hormone estrogen does, but they’re much more complex and are actually selective about which receptors they bind to. According to Unnatural Vegan and Carol J Adam’s Protest Kitchen, decades of research on soy’s impacts on humans has shown that soyfoods like tofu, soy milk, miso, and others do NOT raise the risk for breast cancer. Some evidence from metanalyses has actually shown the opposite, that a diet rich in soyfoods in childhood and adolescence can lower lifetime risk for breast cancer and prostate cancer, and women who have had breast cancer have a better prognosis if they are regular soy consumers.

However, it’s important to note that if men eat absurdly large amounts of soy regularly, which means twelve or more servings a day (a serving being one cup of soymilk or 1/2 cup of tofu) that they might be at risk of feminine traits like Gynecomastia, or Male Breasts. In case studies where this has occurred, as soon as the subject ended his overconsumption of soy products, the symptoms disappeared. So overall, soy has many health benefits and most of the myths revolving around soy are just that – myths.

Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Milks

All of the types of plant-based milks mentioned above are better for animals, but what about their effects on the planet? Let’s take a look at this 2018 study from the University of Oxford. Almond, oat, rice, and soy milk all use less water and land and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cow milk. Almond milk is the most water-intensive milk of the plant-based options, followed by rice milk.

Chart: Climate impact of different milk types

Another thing you may want to think about is the milk’s packaging. Is it reusable, returnable, or recyclable? Or will it end up in a landfill? But you won’t need to worry about that if you decide to give making your own vegan milk a try!

Making Your Own Plant-Based Milks

There are three steps to making vegan milks in your own kitchen:

Soak, blend, strain! – DIY Vegan

Any old blender will do, since the nuts or seeds are softened by the soaking. To strain the pulp from the liquid, use a fine-mesh sieve, cheesecloth, reusable mesh nut milk bag, or even panty hose. You can check out my post here on making oat milk with a reusable mesh nut milk bag. Here are some recipes to experiment with and a video from My New Roots for guidance:

What questions do you have about plant-based milks? What’s your favorite? I’ll keep this post updated to stay current on any new developments with vegan milks.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to look out for other vegan guides on the blog!

Sources I Used to Write This Article:

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