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This is the most nutritious plant-based milk

Soy milk is the clear winner in a new comparison of the nutritional value of cow milk substitutes.

While plant-based milk beverages like soy milk have been on the market for a couple of decades and are advertised as being healthy and wholesome for those who are lactose-intolerant, little research has compared the benefits and drawbacks of the various kinds of plant-based milk.

A new study looks at the four most-commonly consumed types of milk beverages from plant sources around the world—almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, and coconut milk—and compares their nutritional values with those of cow’s milk.

milk pros and cons graphic
(Credit: McGill)

The researchers compared the unsweetened versions of the various plant-based milks in all cases and the figures below are based on a 240 ml serving.

Soy milk—the most balanced nutritional profile:

  • Soy milk is widely consumed for its health benefits linked to the anti-carcinogenic properties of phytonutrients present in the milk known as isoflavones.
  • Has been a substitute for cow’s milk for four decades.
  • The “beany flavor” and the presence of anti-nutrients (substances that reduce nutrient intake and digestion) are of concern, however.

Rice milk—sweet taste and little nutrition:

  • Lactose-free and can act as an alternative for patients with allergy issues from soybeans and almonds.
  • Apart from the high carbohydrate count, that consumption of rice milk without proper care can result in malnutrition, especially in infants, is a concern.

Coconut milk—no protein and few calories, but most of them from fat:

  • Widely consumed in Asia and South America.
  • Consumption can help reduce levels of harmful low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) associated with cardiovascular diseases.
  • Nutritional values are reduced if stored for over 2 months.
milk comparison chart
Comparison of nutritional elements of various milks, based on averages for 240 ml serving. (Credit: McGill)

Almond milk—need for complementary sources of food to provide essential nutrients:

  • Almonds have a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) that are considered helpful in weight loss and weight management. MUFA also helps in reduction of low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol).

Cow’s milk benefits and drawbacks:

  • A wholesome, complete food, providing all major nutrients like fat, carbohydrates, and proteins.
  • Can help humans by providing a wide range of host-defense proteins because various beneficial anti-microbial effects are found in both human and bovine milks. (E.g., a study shows that in the case of infants, consumption of cow’s milk has considerably reduced risk of fever and respiratory infections.)
  • But the presence of various pathogens like Salmonella spp and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in milk have been associated with disease outbreaks around the world.

Cow’s milk allergy and lactose intolerance:

  • One of the most common allergies among infants and children affecting 2.2-3.5 percent of children (a greater percentage than those who are affected by peanuts and tree nut allergies). As many as 35 percent of these infants outgrow being allergic to milk by the age of 5-6, and this may increase to 80 percent by age 16.
  • Lactose intolerance, due to the absence or deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the digestive tract, affects somewhere between 15-75 percent of all adults depending on race, food habits, and gut health.
  • Some studies have suggested that 80 percent of people of African origin and 100 percent of those of Asian and Indigenous American origin are lactose intolerant.

The researchers add that more work is necessary to understand the effects of various conventional and novel processing methods on the nutritional profile, flavor, and texture of these alternative milks.

‘Equol’ may determine if soy protects your heart

PhD candidate Sai Kranthi Vanga and his supervisor Vijaya Raghavan of the bioresource engineering department at McGill University wrote the review, which appears in the Journal of Food Science Technology.

Funding for the review came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Source: McGill University

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