Have you noticed that plant-based milk seems to be everywhere in both supermarkets and health food stores? In some places, the alternative milk brands on offer exceed those for dairy!
Is any of this stuff good for you or your kids? What things should you be looking for if you are unable to tolerate dairy milk and want to use it in your home?
What is Plant-Based Milk?
Plant-based milk is a very loosely defined term within the beverage industry. It is so loose, in fact, that the dairy industry has petitioned the FDA to not allow plant-based beverages to be called “milk” at all. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) describes it this way:
The number of plant-based products using dairy names on the label has increased dramatically in recent years. … The lack of FDA action has led to an anything goes mentality in the marketplace. (1)
Essentially then, vegan milk is any whitish liquid that can be used as a substitute for dairy milk. Mileage varies greatly from brand to brand. In some cases, a particular cow milk alternative may not mimic the nutrients in real milk at all!
The most popular ones I’ve come across regularly include:
- Coconut milk
- Rice milk
- Almond milk
- Cashew milk
- Oat milk
- Soy milk
- Pea milk
Some brands contain a blend of different plant proteins to make their “milk”. Suja, for example, uses pea protein, sunflower seed butter, and flax seeds. Others contain a blend of soy and rice and so forth.
Why So Many Brands?
The reasons for this market explosion are two-fold.
First, more people are realizing that they simply cannot tolerate commercially processed dairy.
The high heat processing is in many cases to ultrapasteurization (UHT) temperature (135 °C / 275 °F), which is significantly higher than the boiling point of water (100 °C / 212 °F).
Applying this high level of heat for 2-5 seconds denatures the milk proteins completely and renders them allergenic. Of course, all the enzymes are destroyed as well .. most notably lactase, necessary for digesting the lactose.
In other words, unless you have an iron stomach, good luck digesting that stuff!
Organic milk is the worst of the bunch, in fact, and more likely to be UHT processed!
Most of the dairy sensitive people I know don’t do much better on minimally processed, vat pasteurized, non-homogenized milk either.
The second reason for the growing popularity of cow milk alternatives is public perception – myth though it is – that eating mostly or only plants is the way to optimal health.
Should You Be Drinking Plant-Based Milk?
First, let me make it clear that I have nothing against plant-based milk!
They are an important and necessary beverage option given the significant number of people today who have a genuine dairy allergy or no access to easily digestible, clean raw grass-fed milk.
Hence, quality dairy substitutes fill a much-needed gap because commercially processed dairy is so problematic in the diet.
The real question, then, is whether commercial plant-based milk brands are safe to drink.
Based on my research, if you choose to drink a milk substitute, you really MUST make it yourself (this article contains several plant-based milk recipes to try).
The commercial offerings are just too dangerous to consume on a regular basis. Here’s why.
4 Reasons Commercial Brands are Unsafe
The first reason to skip commercial plant-based milk brands is to avoid synthetic vitamins. The worst of these are Vitamin A palmitate and Vitamin D2 (vegan Vitamin D).
The Organic Consumers Association warns that isolated vitamins such as those produced synthetically and used in supplements or added to foods cannot be recognized or metabolized by the body in the same way as natural versions. When fat soluble like synthetic A/D, they have the potential to build-up in the body and create a toxic situation. (2)
The second reason to avoid commercial milk substitutes is because of the additives. Manufacturers commonly add gums like guar and gellen among others as well as other substances to give the beverage body and a milk-like consistency. However, they are not a good idea to consume on a regular basis.
Note: Some of these additives like carrageenan are allowed in organic brands too!
The third reason to skip alternative dairy from the store is the added sugar. Most brands I’ve inspected contain 8 or more grams of sweetener per serving. There are some options that are low in sugar or completely unsweetened, but ultimately, these are best avoided too because of the fourth and final reason.
The Dirty Little Secret about Commercial Milk Substitutes
Let’s suppose you’ve done your homework and found a plant-based milk brand that has no added sugar, additives or synthetic vitamins.
While that is great and certainly better than the vast majority of options out here, I would encourage you to still not buy it!
You see, the biggest reason of all to avoid any and all plant-based milk brands is the packaging.
The dirty little secret of alternative milk is that the liquid is boiling hot when it is poured into those tetrapaks or plastic bottles and then sealed.
While necessary to ensure a completely sterile environment that is free of pathogenic microbes when the consumer opens it at home, this factory protocol creates another problem – the very real danger of leaching hormone-disrupting chemicals from the plastic.
Tetrapaks are no safer than plastic bottles either. These shelf stable alternative milk cartons are lined with plastic!
Incidentally, this leaching problem extends to all tetrapak foods — including commercially made bone broth!
The health dangers of boiling hot liquid coming into contact with plastic and remaining there for many minutes while the liquid cools down isn’t usually recognized by consumers. The reason is that by the time they buy it, the containers are either on a shelf or even more misleading, in the refrigerated section of the dairy aisle.
It’s not just about the food … the packaging must be considered as well to determine whether a product is safe to consume or not.
Safe Options for Alternative Milk
In sum, if you are in need of plant-based milk alternatives, it is worth your time to make it yourself! Here are a few recipes on this blog to get you started:
Note that while these beverages are healthy for older children and adults, they should never be used to make vegan baby formula.
Hopefully, one or more beverage companies will step up and market plant-based milk that is unsweetened, free of additives and synthetic vitamins and packaged in glass.
Another safe option is for food manufacturers to use cold press technology to sterilize alternative milk instead of heat, then package, and ship refrigerated if using non-glass containers. Of course, the shelf life may be reduced this way and the costs of production and delivery are much greater. Shipping frozen and keeping frozen at the store would likely be a more practical solution as shelf life would be months instead of days.
Until one or more of these commercial options emerge, do your body a favor and make it yourself!
If you’ve found one already in some corner of the world (I haven’t seen one yet), please let us know in the comments!
(1) FDA Asked to Prevent Misleading Labels in the Dairy Aisle
(2) Nutri-Con: The Truth about Vitamins and Supplements
Hi Sarah. I’ve been buying a plant based milk brand called Elmhurst. Their Cashew milk has: Filtered water, Cashews, Cane sugar (2 g), salt & natural flavors (whatever that means). Their unsweetened Almond milk has Filtered water & Almonds. The package appears to be a heavy paper product but may be classified as a “tetrapack.” They say they use a technique called HydroRelease (water) to extract the nut milk. Have you run across this brand before? I appreciate your input.
Sarah Pope MGA
I have not come across this brand as of yet. Not crazy about the added cane sugar and the catch-all additive “natural flavors” which could hide a lot of things you probably would not like. The unsweetened almond milk sounds better … but you will need to vett their packaging process to ensure it does not involve heat.
I have a BPA free can of Thrive Market brand organic coconut milk, The ingredients are organic coconut extract, water….that’s it! You can look it up at Thrive Market. Thanks. Let me know.
Sarah Pope MGA
Companies using BPA free cans sometimes substitute BPS instead … which is a similar chemical with similar issues. I would check with the company to see what packaging process they are using.
I found MALK around 4 years ago at Whole Foods and used it for a while because it didn’t contain any artificial ingredients. My only concern is the plastic bottle it comes in and what temperature it is when it goes in the bottle.
Sarah Pope MGA
It says cold pressed on the bottle so that is a good sign.
Yikes! Thanks for pointing this out. I do hope
there is something I can use because I don’t have time to make it. I guess it’s betyer to use water in protein drinks than almond milk. Hopefully I can find Malk in the stores. Does Trader Joe’s carry it! Sprouts?
Sarah Pope MGA
I just spotted Malk for the first time at WFoods the other day! It is not with the other plant based milks and had a terrible shelf space position, which is probably why I’ve missed it before!
I also buy the MALK or Elmhurst Farms Unsweetened would love to get your opinion on both – are they the best option when we cannot make our own? And from a nutrition standpoint, (homemade, MALK, or Elmhurst) how much fat are we ingesting, albeit healthy fat, and would anyone eat that many nuts in one serving?
I have bought a coconut milk that is labeled ‘cold aseptic’. Do you know what this means? As we live in Thailand everything else is written in Thai. It is in a tetrapak so I presume it’s still no good.
Sarah Pope MGA
I am not familiar with labeling requirements in Thailand. Are you able to contact the company to inquire about the packaging process?
Just wondering what you think about Mt. Capra goat milk. It is in powdered form . i need to have a substitute for my husband who drinks cow’s milk.
Sarah Pope MGA
Powdered milk has oxidized cholesterol and isn’t a healthy choice for much of anything unfortunately 🙁 Here’s more about it. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/milk-powder/
Mt Capra’s goat milk is dried with Refractance Window Drying Technology, which retains more nutrients and does not go through high-temperature treatment.
Sarah Pope MGA
Mt. Capra is denatured. Please do not use it!
Unsweetened almond MALK ingredients are: Filtered water, organic sprouted almonds, Himalayan salt
That particular one is in the blue bottle and is made from sprouted almonds. I am not sure if the unsweetened vanilla almond is also made from sprouted almonds. I will have to check the next time I am in the store. There are a few varieties such as MALK from pecans and MALK from cashews, but I am not sure if those nuts have been sprouted. Also, the pecan contains maple syrup and thus sugar. I am only comfortable with the unsweetened almond MALK in the blue bottle. That one says it is from sprouted almonds on the back of the bottle.
Sarah Pope MGA
So glad you mentioned this! I am definitely going to look for it around town … hopefully one of the stores carries it. I would only be interested in the unsweetened from sprouted almonds as well.
Hey Sarah, I just saw MALK at the store for the first time too. I’m with you. I’ve always made my own and refused to buy any of those dairy free milks in cartons or bottles because of the heat issue. This one is cold pressed and the unsweetened ones only have three ingredients. Watch out for the sugared up MALK though. At least they use maple syrup.
Perhaps MALK is okay? It is organic, sprouted almond milk without fillers or synthetic vitamins. Their website says they use ultra-high pressure instead of high heat when processing. It also says their bottles are made of non-toxic plastic (BPA and phthalate free). It is found in the refrigerated section.
Sarah Pope MGA
Might be ok … any sugar or additives? Calling the company to get more details on the processing would be helpful too. If you are able to post the ingredients, that would be great!