Vegetable milk: are these drinks healthier?

Made from coconut, hazelnut or almond... These drinks, previously marketed as "vegetable milks", are all the rage among consumers eager to eat better. But are they really interesting for health? Do they surpass their animal counterparts? Answers with a nutritionist.

They are everywhere. In organic shops and supermarkets, on television and in magazines, even in the porridge bowls of the Fitness Instagrameuses. Vegetable milks, re-baptized since 2017 as "vegetable drinks" since they do not contain milk of animal origin, have won the hearts of consumers.

Their motivations include finding lactose-free products because of intolerance, choosing a drink that is easier to digest or choosing an option that respects animal welfare. As dairy products have recently been confronted with health or ethical scandals, consumers are also looking for a healthier alternative. Are vegetable drinks the solution?

Of animal or vegetable origin, two very different drinks

These drinks are different. Milk is secreted by the mammary glands of a cow, sheep or goat type animal. The vegan version is a liquid made from seeds or fruits crushed in water.

But the problem is that, according to a study commissioned in 2018 by the French dairy industry, the Cniel, "one Frenchman in two thinks - wrongly - that vegetable drinks or desserts provide the same nutrients as milk" and "one Frenchman in five says that vegetable drinks meet the needs of babies".

"They are interesting because they are low in calories and low in fat, unlike milk of animal origin. But they do not replace the latter in any way because they do not provide the same nutrients," says Dr. Nina Cohen Koubi, nutritionist, and also points out that they pose a danger to children, especially young children, because they lack nutrients essential for growth.

Dairy products provide protein, and contrary to what one might think, vegetable drinks are not as interesting sources as meat or dairy products. The latter also contain vitamin B12 and calcium - some plant products also contain it, but calcium from animal products is better absorbed by the body.

Where coconut-based foods are high in saturated fats and those made from rice contain complex carbohydrates. These two nutrients are interesting in small quantities, to satisfy a sweet craving. "It's always better than soda," the doctor says.

Vegetable drinks yes, but "in addition"

Should we then avoid or adopt vegetable drinks? The nutrition specialist simply advises balancing with dairy products to meet nutrient intakes. "They can be introduced into a healthy diet as a supplement. ”

"The only ones I wouldn't recommend are soy products. Studies suspect that they slow down metabolism and disrupt the hormonal system. You really have to limit your consumption," Dr. Cohen Koubi recommends.

"In the face of the bludgeoning of cow's milk products, consumers tend to want to eliminate everything. If in doubt, one can reduce, but not completely eliminate. The watchword is moderation, and to avoid generalities. ”

Vegetable milks: not before the age of 1 year

They are based on soya milk, almond, hazelnut or rice and are increasingly used to replace cow's milk in case of allergy... But vegetable milks are absolutely not indicated for very young children. The reason for this is that their composition does not comply with European recommendations, according to SFNEP (Société francophone de nutrition clinique et du métabolisme) in a press release.

According to experts, giving a baby under one year of age (even partially) vegetable milk to drink could lead to slower growth, iron, calcium or vitamin deficiencies.

Indeed, from birth to 1 year of age, babies go through a period of rapid growth. Any lack of energy, protein, fat, minerals, vitamins or trace elements has repercussions on brain growth and development, which are all the more severe if the deficiency is early and prolonged.

It is therefore recalled that infants must have a specific diet to grow well and to cover their nutritional needs. To do this, specialists recommend exclusive breastfeeding for up to 6 months, then complemented by dietary diversification. If you are not breastfeeding, it is recommended to use infant formulas for infants up to 4 to 6 months of age and then specific formulas supplemented with solid foods.

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Vegetable milks: which one to choose?

Vegetable milks are nowadays considered as alternatives to milks of animal origin, in particular cow's milk, which is not always considered very good in what it can contain. Anne Sandrine Arensberg, naturopath, deciphers these milks and helps us to choose the one that corresponds to our needs and desires.

Vegetable milks are becoming more democratic. Before they were assimilated to the bobos that eat organic food. Now more and more people are consuming it, especially people who are lactose intolerant. And the benefits of these milks are many. In addition, there are two types: cereal-based milks, such as soya, rice or oat milk, and nut-based milks, such as almond, hazelnut or coconut milk.

Each of these milks has many properties and is a good alternative to cow's milk for adults with intolerances or allergies, or even who have difficulty digesting lactose. For children, however, milk of animal origin cannot be replaced to avoid deficiencies in iron, calcium and essential fatty acids. "For babies with digestive problems, there are now plant-based milks, but they should be eaten occasionally, for example at snacks, a glass or in yoghurts," says Anne Sandrine Arensberg, naturopath. But all these plant milks are different, so how can we target the one that is right for us according to its contribution

Soy milk

It is the star of vegetable milks and perhaps the most consumed since it is the easiest to find in supermarkets. It contains as much protein as cow's milk, which is good to avoid deficiencies. It is also rich in essential amino acids and does not contain bad fatty acids. For those who are afraid of running out of calcium, there are fortified soymilks that should avoid deficiencies. And it reduces bad cholesterol. On the other hand, be careful if you have digestive problems. "It is not recommended to give it to babies and it is better to choose it organic to avoid GMOs. In general, it is better not to consume it in high doses, even if it is the most consumed vegetable milk," explains the naturopath. Studies have established a potential carcinogenic effect when consumed at too high a dose.

Coconut milk

We are talking here about light coconut milk, not the very thick one to put in Asian cuisine, since in general, the latter is very fat. To eat it, it is better to like coconut, it goes without saying, since the taste is very present. Very rich in iron, it is also rich in phosphorus, potassium, zinc... But also rich in fat, not harmful, which would even tend to reduce bad fat to replace it with good. It is advisable to consume it on the other hand if you do not want to eat too much fat. It is an interesting milk but to avoid consuming if you tend to have cholesterol because it is very rich," Anne Sandrine Arensberg recommends. It is very digestible, and if consumed in moderation its fibre content can help to control its weight.

Almond milk

It is one of the richest vegetable milks. Filled with vitamins, they include vitamin A, which is good for vision, growth and cell renewal, B, which provides energy and E, which has an antioxidant effect. In addition, there are contributions of minerals (calcium and magnesium), iron and fibre. On the other hand, almond milk is quite poor in terms of protein. "It has a pleasant sweet taste, but it is not recommended if you want to reduce the sugars in your diet," the specialist advises. Be careful to choose them naturally in biocoop because some of the products on the market have more water and sugar than anything else. Otherwise there is the homemade alternative, at least you will be sure of what's inside.

Rice milk

Do not confuse it with rice pudding (you were seen coming). It is the most naturally sweetened vegetable milk. To drink alone or add to desserts, it is perfectly suitable for children, especially since the sugars it contains are good even if its glycemic index is high. In addition, its silica content will allow calcium and magnesium to be fixed on the bones. It is rich in vitamin B, minerals and slow carbohydrates, as it is made from rice. "It is a very digestible and gluten-free milk, but it has little calcium and protein. We must not be satisfied with it," advises Anne Sandrine Arensberg.

Hazelnut milk

The taste is very pronounced in hazelnut milk. Enjoy it with chocolate powder and you will almost feel like you are drinking Nutella. Its benefits are similar to those of almond milk: calcium, magnesium, iron, unsaturated fatty acids... And it is remineralizing. Be careful though if you pay attention to your line, because it is quite sweet. But it is a drink adapted to athletes for its energy intake and easy digestion.
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Oat milk

As it contains no fat, this milk is beneficial for people who want to lose weight. Consumed in the morning, it gives energy to start the day off right and its high fibre composition strengthens the digestive system and gives the feeling of being full. It is particularly rich in essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid, antioxidants and vitamin E. The beta-glucans in it help to fight cholesterol and bile acids in the intestine by absorbing them and preventing harmful elements from passing through the body.

Among the popular milks are also spelt, quinoa and chestnut milks..." The idea is to vary these different milks but also to be clear about our needs and health problems, whether it is allergies, cholesterol, weight problems or if we are gluten intolerant. You also have to see where they come from," advises Anne Sandrine Arensberg. But we must keep in mind that if some are fat, they are good fats, and we take them natural and without added sugars to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Ecological duel: vegetable milk vs. animal milk

Vegetable milk, or rather drinks made from soya, oilseeds or cereals, are on the rise. But which is more ecological: vegetable milk or animal milk?

Faced with the onslaught of the vegan diet and cow's milk or lactose intolerances, vegetable drinks are becoming increasingly popular in the Western diet. Soy milk, rice milk, almond milk.... appear in our glasses and for cooking. But are they more ecological than cow's milk? The balance sheet is not entirely clear-cut.

Cow's milk, soya drink, almond milk... which milk is the most ecological?

It is difficult to make a real comparison between the different milks since the ecological balance of each product differs greatly depending on the production method. Moreover, they are not quite the same products: cow's milk, like goat's or sheep's milk, comes from lactating females. Vegetable milks" (which manufacturers are no longer allowed to call "vegetable milks") are drinks made by pressing plants with water. We mainly find soya milk, almond milk but also rice, hazelnut, oat, spelt or millet milk.

The ecological balance of cow's milk

We know that livestock farming is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Cow breeding, whether for meat or milk, is very water-intensive: it would take 1,000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk. In addition, cows are often fed soya, which comes from deforested areas of South America. Finally, cow breeding contributes to the production of greenhouse gases (the famous methane from cow farts!)

In short, here is the poor ecological balance of cow's milk. But it differs greatly from one milk to another: if the milk comes from organic and local production, its ecological footprint will be much lower, and can compete with vegetable milks. As for sheep's and goat's milk, their consumption is much lower, and few studies have been done on their ecological footprint. If these ruminants need less pasture and feed to produce milk, and milk is appreciated by people who are lactose intolerant, it would seem that sheep's and goat's milk is no more ecological than cow's milk. A study (1) shows that this is certainly the case for cheeses.

Almond milk, not so eco-friendly?

What about vegetable drinks? They are often sold in organic and health food stores as an alternative to cow's milk. It is indeed a good option for vegans because they are rich in calcium and vegetable proteins.

However, some studies show that almond milk is not so ecological. An article by Tom Philpott published in 2014 entitled "Drop almond milk, you ignorant dirty hipsters" indicates that almond milk is very water-intensive. Indeed, it would take 4 litres of water to produce a single almond, in countries where water resources are rather scarce! On the other hand, another study(3) shows that in terms of carbon footprint, almond milk is more ecological than cow's milk (0.36 kg / L for almond milk against 1.6 kg / L for cow's milk).

Studies are not available for other plant milks. On the other hand, we know that rice cultivation is also very water-intensive and often produced in distant countries. The same goes for coconut milk. Hazelnut, spelt, quinoa or millet milks are very rarely made with plants produced in France, which increases their carbon footprint. Oat milk is quite virtuous in terms of its ecological balance, and is also often produced in Europe.

So, which milk is the greenest? It's hard to say given all the criteria. Several lessons can already be learned: of course, organic milks are preferred, whether they are animal or vegetable. On the other hand, we opt for milks made in France (easy for cow's milk) or in Europe (rice or Italian hazelnut milk, oat milk...)

You can also choose homemade vegetable milk, which considerably reduces your ecological footprint. We opt for locally produced oilseeds or oats and add water, which avoids the transportation of drinking water in bricks! An option that is also much more economical than buying vegetable milks in stores, and zero waste. Let's get started!

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Everything you need to know about vegetable milks

Since they have been making their way onto the shelves, vegetable milks sometimes leave us in doubt: are they suitable for children? To babies? Will they find them to their liking? Are they nutritionally interesting? We tell you more about these vegetable drinks.

Are they real milks: vegetable milks?

If we like to talk about "vegetable milks", it is in fact a small misuse of language. Indeed, these vegetable drinks (as they should be called) do not contain milk as such: they are, in fact, composed of water and oilseeds or cereals. So this is very good news for babies allergic to cow's milk protein: these drinks do not contain it (and this is also the case for yoghurts or vegetable brews)! Among the most popular recipes are almond milk, which is renowned for its sweetness and digestibility, oat milk, which is light and delicate, and coconut milk with more exotic flavours. At the time of food diversification (i.e. from the age of 6 months), they will then be able to make their entry into babies' lives. But be careful: they are not intended to replace "real" milk. To grow well, calcium is still essential to your child's diet: he will still need milk (between 500 and 800ml per day) whether he is a baby or a child.

How to offer vegetable milks to babies?

To put all the chances on your side and offer your child to discover the unique flavours of vegetable milks, there is nothing better than a yogurt or a load. Often presented in small jars or gourds, these familiar ingredients are reminiscent of gourmet moments: a tasty complement for breakfast, a moment of happiness after the main course or simply a snack break. The taste of vegetable milks is generally sweet, light and creamy, making them accessible and digestible. And for more originality, they can be decorated with fruits and cereals, for example for the Good vegetable breweries, which are available in 3 organic recipes.

Vegetable milk is good but... is it healthy?

While their recipes are likely to make children (including very young children) smile, vegetable milks also have the particularity of containing organic acids that make calcium soluble and therefore accessible. As for the oilseeds from which most of these preparations are made, it is no coincidence that they are often referred to as "superfoods": rich in vegetable proteins and fibres (which promote your baby's transit), minerals, vitamins and essential fatty acids, they have serious nutritional advantages. Finally, if you can choose desserts or vegetable snacks 100% from organic farming with packaging that does not contain bisphenol A or phthalate, you can combine the useful with the pleasant and win on all fronts.

  • Tinchan P, Lorjaroenphon Y, Cadwallader KR, Chaiseri S. Changes in the profile of volatiles of canned coconut milk during storage. J Food Sci. 2015;80:C49–C54. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.12730. [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
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