blog header banner
Daily Alternatives - Brain Food Blog

A visit to your favorite grocer’s dairy aisle looks a bit different than it did a decade ago. Where once you would find whole milk, low-fat milk, non-fat milk, and soy milk is now stocked with an assortment of plant-based milk alternatives. Derived from nuts, legumes, cereals, and seeds, plant-based, milk alternatives continue to grow in popularity. According to Allied Market Research, the global dairy alternatives industry was estimated to be worth $13.02 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $35.80 billion by 2026.

A number of factors are driving the continued growth and innovation in the dairy alternatives market. For some people, lactose-intolerance or an allergy to cow’s milk is forcing them to seek alternatives. Others are following a vegan diet or turning to plant-based alternatives for the perceived health benefits. Still others choose plant-based milk alternatives because of ethical beliefs and concerns about animal cruelty and sustainability. There are also those simply curious or interested in trying something different.

Regardless of the reason, the wide array of options is a welcome sight for those seeking alternatives. However, many questions arise from both a scientist and consumer perspective such as "are all these options a good thing or a bad thing?" and "which dairy-free options are best and worst?" Here are some factors to consider when deciding which one to choose.

Plant-based Milk Alternative

How It’s Made

Benefits

Considerations

Soy

Made by soaking and grinding soybeans, boiling the mixture, and filtering out remaining particulates.

Naturally contains the same amount of protein as cow’s milk

 

Cholesterol free

 

Highly digestible

 

Highly nutritive

 

Least processed among plant-based milk alternatives

Soy is an allergen too

Almond

Made by blending almonds with water and then straining the mixture to remove the solids. It can also be made by adding water to almond butter.

Rich source of calcium

 

High in fiber and Vitamin E

 

Low calorie

Tree nut allergen

 

Poor consistency

 

Low protein

 

Sweetened varieties can contain a lot of added sugar

 

Cost

Cashew

Made by blending water-soaked cashews and then straining the mixture to remove the solids.

Rich source of calcium

High in fiber and Vitamin E

Low calorie

Similar nutritional composition to almond with creamier texture

Tree nut allergen

Low protein

Sweetened varieties contain added sugar

Cost

Rice

Typically derived from brown rice and brown rice starch. Made by pressing the rice through a mill using diffusion to strain out the pressed grain.

Rich source of calcium

 

Allergen and gluten free

 

Easy to digest

 

Low calorie

Thin consistency

 

High in carbohydrates

 

Sweetened varieties contain added sugar

Coconut

Made by grating and squeezing coconut meat.

Rarely associated with allergens

 

Aids in digestion

 

Unique flavor

High in saturated fat

 

Sweetened or flavored varieties may be high in added sugar

Hemp

Made by soaking and grinding hulled hemp seeds in water

Rich source of calcium

 

High in essential fatty acids

Hard on the digestive system

 

Earthy flavor

 

Sweetened or flavored varieties may be high in added sugar

Flaxseed

Made by combining cold-pressed flax oil mixed with filtered water.

Rich source of calcium

 

High in essential fatty acids

 

Low calorie

Low protein

 

Hard on the digestive system

Oat

Made by mixing oats that have been cleaned, toasted, and hulled with water and potentially other grains or beans, and then straining the mixture to remove the solids.

Rich source of calcium

 

Contains beta-glucan

 

Gluten free

 

Creamy consistency

 

Low calorie

Hard on the digestive system

 

High in carbohydrates

 

Sweetened or flavored varieties may be high in added sugar

 

Cost

Pea

Made by extracting pea protein from yellow peas and then purified and blended with water.

Rich source of calcium

 

Naturally high in protein

 

Allergen and gluten free

 

Similar taste and consistency to cow’s milk

Cooked flavor

Scientists are working hard to satisfy the consumer in terms of lactose-free, cruelty-free and sustainable dairy alternatives, thus the advent of all these varieties. However, they often find it difficult to balance the taste and texture of the product, and the degree of processing has come into question. For these reasons, many dairy alternative brands available in the market have been under constant reformulation to satisfy consumer demands. When manufacturers are able to strike the right balance between taste and texture, and develop minimally-processed dairy alternatives, consumer acceptance and demand is expected to skyrocket.

With so many choices now and more inevitably on the way, it may take some trial and error for consumers to determine which plant-based milk alternative is right for them. While preferences for taste and texture matter, nutritional composition is critical. The Nutrition Facts label is a consumer’s key to determining how many calories the product has per serving and how much protein, calcium, sugar (including added sugars), sodium, and vitamins it contains. It’s also important to check the ingredient list to see how many ingredients were used to make the product, with a general rule that less is more.

More information about the origins of plant-based milk alternatives and how they are processed can be found in Food Technology magazine, or dig deeper into the science in a recent review article in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.

  


Gabriela John Swamy, PhD


REFERENCES

Allied Market Research. “Dairy Alternatives Market by Source (Soy, Almond, Rice and Other Sources), Application (Food, Beverages, Dairy-free Probiotic Drinks and Others), Distribution Channel (Large Retail, Small Retail, Specialty Stores and Online): Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2019-2026.” November 2019. https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/dairy-alternatives-market

Rees Parrish, M.S., R.D., C. “Moo-ove Over, Cow’s Milk: The Rise of Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives.” Practical Gastroenterology. January 2018. https://med.virginia.edu/ginutrition/wp-content/uploads/sites/199/2014/06/January-18-Milk-Alternatives.pdf

Sethi, S., S. K. Tyagi, Rahul K. Anurag. “Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review.” Journal of Food Science Technology. September 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s13197-016-2328-3

Get More Brain Food

Read More Blog Posts

More Brain Food

Students Showcase Knowledge Creativity Through Competitions

Each year, IFT provides student members a wealth of opportunities to expand their knowledge, explore potential career paths, network with peers, volunteer their time, and socialize at its Annual Event and Food Expo. Among those opportunities is the chance to showcase their creative thinking, scientific prowess, and teamwork through a number of competitions.

5 Things I Learned as an IFT Board of Director

Over the years, I have volunteered with IFT because I wanted to give back to an organization that played such a vital role in my career.

IFT Volunteers Advance the Science of Food

IFT volunteers are at the core of what our organization does. Without the dedicated work of volunteers, our mission of advancing the science of food would not be possible.