" “Plant-based alternatives don’t really have the nutrients that milk has. They have to have ingredients added. Just because it is plant-based does not mean they are nutritionally comparable.”
It's true, alternative plant mylks are in general...water. For example, Noumi 's Australia's Own branded Unsweetened Almond milk contains ONLY 2.4% ALMONDS, after water. The rest of the ingredients are: sunflower oil (for body), salt (flavour & preservation), & stabilisers (gellan gum & xanthan gum). All of these additional ingredients would each be less than 2.3% as per Food Standards Australia New Zealand's ingredient labelling standard 1.2.4.
It's not just Australia's own, but Milk Lab's barista almond mylk is similar too with a bit more almonds (3.5%), sugar (flavour), sunflower oil (texture), maltodextrin (texture and flavour), acidity regulators (preventing splitting in tea/coffee), vegetable gums (stabiliser), lecithin (emulsifier) & salt (flavour and preservation). In itself there's nothing wrong with these ingredients. They are added to the almond water to create a "rich, creamy plant-based milk" (similar to the sensory experience of full cream dairy milk) & is of "cafe quality", according to the Noumi website.
Looks the same, behaves the same in coffee and tea, adds creaminess & flavour. If we base it on these criteria alone, then yes plant-mylks are alternatives to dairy milk. But let's be real:
We eat food, not nutrients. But food is comprised of nutrients.
We cannot ignore the nutritional component of foods.
(Dr Anneline Padayachee)
Nutritional composition is essential when comparing food products & when creating new "alternative" food products.
Here are 4 Key Points to think about when it comes to milk vs mylk:
1. Nutritionally we're talking about chalk & cheese, literally.
Dairy milk is a well known nutritional source of protein AND calcium, plus so much more including the minerals phosphorus, potassium, zinc, potassium & magnesium; the carbohydrate lactose - which actually enhances absorption & utilisation of minerals & vitamin D in the small intestine and can have a prebiotic effect; and vitamins including riboflavin, vitamin A and B12. Even though milk can be a source of saturated fat (the fat we need to focus on limiting in our diet - limiting does not mean eliminating, unless you have an ill-health condition that requires you do to so), FULL CREAM is only 3-4% fat, it's at a minimum 96% fat free! Enough said. #fullcreammilkisnotfullofcream.
2. Alternative mylks are ~95% WATER.
The basic formula for a plant mylk is generally:
Nut/Plant component: 2.5%
Of course there is scope to play around with the formula if you leave the sugar out. Adding more ingredients can change the flavour, texture, mouthfeel and stability of the product. Apart from vital hydration, water doesn't have any major nutrients that we need. Water isn't milk, but mylk seems to be water with a sprinkling of fat, salt, sugar and nuts for colour and taste. Maybe this should really be called nut juice? Actually with rise in functional/flavoured waters, maybe nut water is a more accurate name...
3. Nutrient density and digestibility is the true measurement of the nutritional quality of a food.
Just because FOOD A has calcium and FOOD B has calcium it doesn't mean that both foods have the same level of nutritional quality and absorption by the body. The structure of the food (its architecture so to speak), the structure of the nutrient, the amount of the nutrient, and the presence of other nutrients and food components all affect the nutritional quality and our body's ability to absorb nutrients. And this isn't even taking the human body's digestive processes in consideration yet..! Dairy milk is a whole food meaning it has nothing added to it. It's nutritional composition is naturally present. The nutrients in milk naturally support each other in absorption. Even though we know how lactose affects magnesium and how casein affects calcium, we do not know why they do this (yet). Science is both wonderful, but the more we know, the more questions we have as well. Plant mylks are created products that have been formulated for taste and useage, and hopefully nutritional content (but that is not always the case as the above formula shows). There's nothing wrong with processed foods per se - you just need to look at the formula and nutritional content of the product.
Let's use calcium and protein as a case study of nutrient density and quality.
3a Calcium content and quality
Almonds are touted as being a source of calcium. And they are (but so is sand, just saying...). Almonds contain 264mg calcium per 100g (about 1 cup) of nuts. That's a lot of nuts. To put it into perspective, 1 cup of almonds is roughly 3400kJ of energy. A McDonald's Big Mac is 2300kJ. I'm not saying Big Mac's are healthier than nuts, but 1 cup of nuts is A LOT OF ENERGY. According to the Medibank energy calculator, you'd need to walk for at least 4 hours to burn 3000kJ!
Back to calcium though.
At 2.4% nuts in this mylk: this equals 6.3mg calcium per 100mL.
Full cream dairy milk has 123mg calcium per 100mL.
Dairy milk has ~20 TIMES MORE CALCIUM!
It's not just about the amount of calcium though. Casein proteins in dairy milk actually enhance absorption of minerals including calcium. Conversely even with the addition of stabilisers and emulsifiers, plant mylks have a bit of a problem with sedimentation. In a best case scenario, where a company has added calcium equivalent to dairy milk calcium, only 31% of the label value will be floating around in solution available for absorption in an unshaken carton. The rest of it will be sitting on the bottom of the box. Even for those what are shaken, 59% of calcium is floating in solution, the remainder in the settled residue. The unfortunate truth is that no consumer can ever be fully sure how much calcium is really in solution, and how much they've lost in their recycle bin due to settling out.
3b Protein content and quality
Almonds are a great source of protein, with 21.5g per 100g of nuts. But at 2.4% nuts in this mylk, this equals 0.5g protein per 100ml nut mylk.
Full cream dairy milk has 3.4g protein/100g.
Dairy milk has ~6.5 TIMES MORE PROTEIN!
When it comes to proteins, proteins aren't all the same. Proteins are really a family of amino acid-based nutrients that are essential for health. The body uses amino acids to build proteins, and they do so much more than just building muscle and regenerating skin. They're involved in everything from neural development, DNA and RNA synthesis, cell signalling, reproduction, osmoregulation, metabolic regulation, and blood flow (Wu 2010).
Within the group of proteins there are different grades of proteins, based on their digestibility (i.e. so how well it's broken down by our digestive tract and absorbed in our small intestine for use in all cells in our body) rate (Boye, Wijesinha-Bettoni, & Burlingame, 2012; Mathai, Liu, & Stein, 2017). In essence, the more digestible a protein is, the better the absorption, uptake & utilisation in the body; and the high protein grade it receives. Higher grades equal better quality.
Dairy milk proteins are split into 2 groups: wheys (easy digestion & absorption, great for muscle growth & development), & caseins (slower absorption, great for satiety). They're also complete proteins, i.e. they contain all essential amino acids that the human body can't make itself. While a great plant protein source, almonds contain incomplete protein, it's low in essential amino acids (lysine, methionine & cysteine to be precise). What almonds lack, chickpeas make up though as they are complimentary proteins. Same deal with baked beans and bread: separately they're incomplete proteins but together they are the whole protein package. But it's clear: individual plant proteins are NOT the same as DAIRY proteins.
According to the FAO's Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Acore (DIAAS), the cut-off for "good protein source" is 75, and 100 for "excellent protein source" (FAO, 2011). Anything less than 75 is not really that great. Milk proteins consistently comes up with the highest digestibility score over 100, soy proteins are not too far off though circa 90 (Chalupa-Krebzdak, Long & Bohrer 2018). All the other nuts used in nut mylks come up short for digestibility quality ranging from 60 (hemp seeds) to 23 (almonds). So yes, these plant-based protein food sources are definitely are a decent source of protein, in terms of quantity. But 100g of protein from almonds does not equal the digestibility of protein from dairy milk.
4. Dairy milk has a low glycemic index, plant mylks are moderate to high GI
Glycemic index indicates how rapidly blood glucose levels rise 2 hours after consuming a food. Pure glucose is 100, and obviously has the highest glycemic index value. GI foods have 3 grades: low (<55 GI), medium (56-69 GI), and high (70+ GI) (ADA 2014). Glycemic index is really important for diabetics as it helps them to have more control over their blood glucose level, preventing spikes that can be fatal (hyperglycemia) or lows that can result in coma (hypoglycemia). Foods with a low GI value tend to be more satiating (i.e. fills us up for longer). For athletes, knowing GI is valuable as it helps them maintain their energy levels & endurance in different sports. For the rest of us, GI is a really helpful tool to maintain a healthy weight, prevent the mid-afternoon slump, and prevent pre-diabetes. GI is so important that health organisations around the world recommend a low GI diet, especially if your're diabetic but also if you're trying to control blood sugar levels (ADA 2014). If you'd like to know more about GI and your diet, book a free chat via my one-on-one consults here.
Back to milk vs mylk.
In dairy milk, the carbohydrate that contributes to blood glucose levels is lactose. However it is really important to realise that - like protein - not all carbohydrates behave the same. According to Chalupa-Krebzdak & Co (2018), "The link between GI with natural lactose versus refined sugars added to some plant-based milk alternatives is important to consider." The GI of dairy milk is 46.9 - and is therefore considered LOW GI unlike most plant mylks which can be as high as 99.96 (practically liquid glucose for coconut mylk) (Jeske et al. 2017). According to Jeske et al (2017), some plant mylks have a glycemic load comparable to coke and cake. READ THE INGREDIENT LIST and NUTRITION INFORMATION PANEL FOLKS. Why is this?
Simple: Dairy "sugar" is lactose. Lactose is a molecule comprised of both glucose (the sugar that affects your blood gluose levels) and galactose (a sugar molecule that passes straight into storage in the muscle (located in glycogen) (Barosa et al 2011, Stahel et al 2017). Nut Mylks on the other hand have actual sugar - scientifically known as sucrose commonly known as table sugar - added as an ingredient. Rice mylks are naturally high in glucose as well. Clearly milk sugar is not the same as the other sugars. Evidently dairy milk, being a low GI food, is perfect for diabetics and individuals aiming to keep blood sugar low, while plant-based mylks may actually be moderate to high GI and completely unsuitable.
There's 100% a place for alternative mylks in the market. But an ALTERNATIVE should be precisely that: an EQUAL SUBSTITUTE. A nut mylk may like a semi-creamy white liquid, & is marketed as being a suitable alternative to dairy milk, but nutritionally plant mylks are NOT EQUAL to DAIRY MILK (a one ingredient, minimally processed, whole food) UNLESS they're ADEQUATELY SUPPLEMENTED WITH ADDED NUTRIENT INGREDIENTS. And even then it's more like a B-grade cousin than the A+ original real deal.
Given that mylks in general have:
- lower protein content, with less digestibility
- higher GI
- low or no naturally present nutrients, formulations can vary in quality
- sedimentation issues with calcium and other added minerals (if added) affecting absorption
it's really important to realise that plant-based mylks are not a complete nutritional alternative to dairy milk.
Things you can do:
- Read the Ingredient Declaration looking for the presence of added nutrients - and added sugars, etc
- Check the Nutrition Information Panel, seeing how it compares to the recommended dietary intake values
- Shake the bottle or box really well before use
- Add nutrients to the plant-mylk to top it up.
I personally use the Welleco multi-nutrient plant-protein supplement to my almond mylks because I know nut mylk is so low nutritionally in pretty much everything. I use nut mylk because simply put: I like the taste of it with spinach, psyllium, raspberries, oats and tahini. Dairy milk tastes too rich for my liking. If you'd like to trial Welleco's product, click here for $10 off your first order. And no, Welleco does not pay me to say any of this. It's just a great product that was formulated by a Dr Simone Laubscher (PhD in nutrition) based on scientific research for Elle McPherson when she was having gastrointestinal issues. It helped Elle personally, and they decided to manufacture it for everyone. It's contract manufactured by Morlife - an Australian owned company on the Gold Coast that has exceptional food safety and quality controls. And it tastes great. I wouldn't call it a protein powder as such - it has a range of nutrients including prebiotics. I use this evidence-based supplement product to improve the nutritional quality of plant mylks. f I use dairy milk or kefir, I do not use it, because milk and dairy have a bucket load of high quality nutrients in it naturally.
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