The Plant-based Milk Guide
With all the dairy milk facts that we have talked about, just by switching to a plant-based milk makes us feel like we have already done a great deal to our health and the planet --- but it's not that simple! Many dairy-free milks out there are packed with sugar, fillers and additives that you actually don't want in your body either. In an ideal world, the best would be to make your own nut milks fresh but squeezing a nut milk bag might not be your everyday option.
(BTW, we have an amazing tool for this! Soyabella® Automatic Nut & Seed Milk Maker)
If you are planning to buy plant-based milks for your health, do opt for the ones with less ingredients as much as possible. You only need nuts, seeds or grains plus water to make plant-based milks. The rest of the ingredients are added for flavour, longer shelf life, texture (aka "barista edition") or the look of the milk (colour, or to prevent separation, which is natural because water and oil separate!).
What are the common additives in plant-based milks?
We want to empower you with knowledge to make a conscious decision. Not that you should be a purist and eliminate all the additives but at least know what is going into your drinks (and body) at the end of the day.
If you see this at the top of the ingredients list, even before the actual nut or grain that should be the main ingredient, it might be better to put that product back to the shelf. Sugar is present in many of the plant-based beverages in the market. In my opinion this is one of the most concerning ingredients and I would definitely opt for an unsweetened version. Sugar in drinks tend to go quicker into your blood stream than solid foods and it will be better to have a habit of not drinking sweetened beverages. If you are going to sweeten your drinks, opt for natural low sugar sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit sweeteners so you don't mess with your blood sugar levels.
Guar gum, xanthan gum and gellan gum - you might have heard of these "gums" and wondering what they actually are. These gums are a common additive used as a binding and thickening agent in many plant-based milks. Guar gum is a substance from peas and xanthan gum is made from corn. Gellan gum is made from fermentation of sugars. They are all vegan and high in soluble fibre and used as a binder. When you mix water and oil (nuts) the natural reaction is separation. These gums work as an emulsifier to bind the water and oil together for a better look and texture for your plant-based drink. If you consume them in large amounts it can cause issues in your digestive system. Normally these gums are used in very small amounts - we are talking about less than a teaspoon per litre, but if plant-based milks are causing you digestive issues like bloating and mild gas, you might want to stay clear form these gums and see how that works for you. You DON'T need to have gums to make a plant-based milk, and they are added for commercial reasons.
Rice starch, tapioca starch or whatever starch it is, this is added as a thickener to improve the plant-based milk's texture and consistency. It is basically added carbohydrates (sugars) and there are no real benefits to have this in your drink. Some manufacturers might add this for cost reasons - starches are cheaper ingredients compared to nuts and seeds. As long as you are not allergic to the type of starch it's not a big threat to your health but again, it is not a necessary ingredient to have in your milks and it would be better to skip this.
Carrageenan is a food additive that is used in food products such as nut milks and yogurts as a stabilizing and emulsifying agent. It is derived from red seaweed which makes it sound healthy but scientists believe that carrageenan can induce inflammation and lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, digestive disorders, heart diseases, neurological disorders and even something as serious as cancer. Again, we can live without this ingredient and if your milk separates, just give it a shake!
5. Plant-based protein
Many commercial nut milks contain very little actual nuts for cost reasons. To make the nutritional label look a bit more attractive, some companies might add cheaper plant-based protein sources like pea protein to improve the nutritional profile. It is not harmful, but if there was sufficient amount of nuts in the milk it would be unnecessary to add isolated protein.
By the way, describing 'almond milk' as an ingredient is a little trick that many manufacturers seem to be doing now. This almond milk is mostly water but by combining it together with the little bit of nuts that they use, it would make it look as if a lot of nuts were used and push down the other ingredients like fillers and sweeteners to the bottom of the list. It would be interesting to find out the actual amount of almonds that were used in the recipe.
Why plant-based milks with fillers are on the market?
It's because it sells. Consumers are paying for milks that taste good (creamy and sweet), resemble cow's milk that they are used to (homogenized and doesn't separate), at the lowest price possible. Plus, for supermarkets, it is essential to have a long shelf life.
Now, is that really doing a favour to our body and the planet?
I will leave that decision for you to make :)
Just like many other food items, the best is to make your own plant-based milk fresh at home.
Here are some pretty cool recipes you might want to try out!
- Almond milk recipe via The Kitchn
- Cashew milk recipe via Cookie and Kate >> No squeezing recipe
- Macadamia nut milk recipe (with chocolate and berry options) via The Minimalist Baker
- Hazelnut milk recipe (with chocolate options) via A Beautiful Plate
- Walnut milk recipe via The Clean Eating Couple
- Peanut milk recipe via National Peanut Board
Try our almond milks and hemp milks that are made with the best ingredients we can source.