The free-from-dairy milk bar.
Gone are the days when the lactose intolerant had to opt for soy or rice milk. Zoom around the supermarket and you are spoiled for choice – regular, light, flavoured, and calcium enriched plant “milks” from numerous nuts and grains and even a fruit (coconut). It’s a growth industry. Plant “milks” from soy and grains are certainly top of the “avoid” hit list with paleo advocates along with “ditch the dairy”. They suggest replacing real milk (a good source of some vitamins and minerals that can be difficult to obtain from other foods) with nut milks and coconut milk. So how do the various plant “milks” match up?
What are the key ingredients in plant “milks”?
It’s important to read the label as a typical ingredients list can contain from 3 or 4 to 13 or 14 ingredients. Remember, ingredients are listed on a food label from the greatest to smallest amounts that have been added.
• Soy “milks” are water (about 85–90%) and ground whole soy beans or soy protein isolate powder.
• Nut “milks” (almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia) are water (about 97%) and ground nuts/nut pastes.
• Grain/seed “milks” (hemp, quinoa/chia, oats, rice) are water (about 85–90%) and a mix of flours and/or brans.
• Coconut “milk” is water (about 70%) and coconut cream/milk.
What else is in them? Food manufacturers add a number of ingredients and approved food additives to make them more nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk, to provide a creamy mouth-feel and to make them tasty. We have put together this table to help you decode the ingredient list so you know what you are buying and can make an informed decision.
|What’s added?||Typical ingredients|
|Calcium (mineral salts)||Calcium carbonate (170), organic calcium, plant calcium, tricalcium phosphate (341), calcium phosphate (341), Aquamin (organic calcium)|
|Other mineral salts||Sodium bicarbonate (500)|
|Vitamins||Vitamin A, vitamin B1, B2, vitamin B12, vitamin D|
|Salt||Salt, sea salt|
|Sugars/sweeteners||Sugar (sucrose), barley malt, rice syrup, agave, maltodextrin|
|Food acids||332 (potassium citrate)|
|Emulsifiers/stabilisers/thickeners||Lecithin, 339 (sodium phosphate), 407 (carrageenan) 412 (guar gum), 466 (sodium carboxymethylcellulose), 471 (mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids|
In a review of plant milks published in The Conversation, Milking the Market: Are you pouring additives on your cereal?, Suzie Ferrie concludes: “Unfortunately, unless they’re reading the packaging carefully, many consumers are probably being misled by the labelling of these alternative products as milk. What’s more, some are startlingly low on nutrition. The large amount of added water means that many of these products are quite dilute. Other than soy milk, none of the others have even a tenth of the protein in animal milks. If you adjust for the amount of added water by looking at their nutrition relative to calorie content (instead of just per 100ml as most labels show), then some of the nut products look a bit better …Then, there’s added salt, which surprisingly seems to be a supplement to every nut milk product on the market. Calcium content is not comparable either, unless it has been added. Unfortunately, the form of calcium commonly used is not easily absorbed by the human body compared to what’s present in animal milks.”
|Are plant “milks” really milk?
Not according to Australia and New Zealand Food Standards. “Milk means the mammary secretion of milking animals, obtained from one or more milkings for consumption as liquid milk or for further processing but excludes colostrum. Skim milk means milk from which milkfat has been removed.”
Milks and plant milks – GI values from sugirs
|MILK OR PLANT MILK||GI||SERVING||AVAILABLE CARBS PER SERVE||GL PER SERVE|
|Whole milk, 4% fat||27-34||1 cup/250ml||12g||4|
|Fat-reduced milk, 1–2% fat||20-30||1 cup/250ml||13-14g||4|
|Skim milk, less than 1% fat||20-34||1 cup/250ml||13-14g||4|
|Plant “milk”- soy|
|Regular soy milk (added calcium)||24-37||1 cup/250ml||13-15g||4-5|
|Light soy milk (added calcium)||34||1 cup/250ml||7g||2|
|Plant “milk”- grains|
|Quinoa and chia seeds||42||1 cup/250ml||11g||5|
|Rice, regular||79||1 cup/250ml||24g||19|
|Rice, low fat||92||1 cup/250ml||34g||31|
|Plant “milk”- nuts|
|Almond (unsweetened)||23||1 US cup/240ml||2g||0.5|
About SUGiRS Sydney University GI Research Service (SUGiRS) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It was established in 1995 to provide a reliable commercial GI testing laboratory for the food industry.
About GI testing The GI value is determined following the international standard method by feeding 10 or more healthy people a portion of the test food containing 50 grams of available carbohydrate (total carbohydrate minus dietary fibre) and then measuring the effect on their blood glucose levels over the next two hours. For each person, the incremental area under their two-hour blood glucose response (glucose iAUC) for this food is then calculated. On another occasion, the same 10 people consume an equal-carbohydrate portion of glucose (the reference food) and their two-hour blood glucose response is also determined (the reference food is tested three times by each person). A GI value for the test food is then calculated for each person by dividing their glucose iAUC for the test food by their average glucose iAUC for the reference food. The final GI value for the test food is the average GI value for the 10 people.
Contact For information about GI testing at the University of Sydney, email: Fiona Atkinson PhD,
Can a high GI diet lead to depression?
A high GI diet is associated with an increased risk for new-onset depression in postmenopausal women, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The investigators led by James Gangwisch of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, looked at the dietary glycemic index, glycemic load, types of carbohydrates consumed and depression in data from more than 70,000 postmenopausal women who participated in the National Institutes of Health’s Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study between 1994 and 1998. They found that progressively higher dietary GI scores and consumption of refined grains and added sugars were associated with increased risk of new-onset depression in post-menopausal women. Greater consumption of dietary fibre, whole grains, vegetables and non-juice fruits was associated with decreased risk. In their conclusion, they highlight the need to follow up their observational findings with randomized trials “to examine the question of whether diets rich in low GI carbs could serve as treatments and primary preventive measures for depression in postmenopausal women”.
What’s the best diet for a mum with gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes (GDM) is the most common medical problem encountered during pregnancy. As the cornerstone of managing it is modifying diet, all women with GDM should be given advice about diet and lifestyle changes. For most, managing their diet is all they need to do. “A carbohydrate-controlled diet evenly distributed throughout the day and with a predominance of low GI food choices is the ideal. Insulin or other medications will only be added if dietary changes and moderate physical activity are unable to keep your blood glucose levels in the target range” says Prof Jennie Brand-Miller in The Bump to Baby Diet.
As carb-rich foods are the foods that immediately affect blood glucose levels, carbohydrate restriction has been traditionally recommended. However, the evidence for this dietary advice is poorly substantiated says Teri Hernandez in Diabetes Care. In a small pilot randomized crossover study the researchers found that women with GDM could manage their blood glucose levels on a higher-complex carbohydrate (60%)/lower-fat (25%) diet just as well as they could on a higher fat (45%) restricted carbohydrate (40%) diet. The women with GDM taking part were carefully monitored and all food provided. The authors conclude that: “This diet strategy may have important implications for preventing macrosomia.”
“This is an interesting study” says Dr Alan Barclay. “It is well designed, but small (only 16 women) and of very short duration (3 days on each diet with a washout period of 3 days in between). It would have been ideal to have the mothers on the 2 diets for the remainder of their pregnancies to see what effect it had on their babies. Both diets were estimated to be low GI but as most US foods haven’t had their GI measured, this has to be very much a guesstimate. In addition, although the authors call it a high complex carb diet, at 18% of energy from sugars (in fruits, milk, yogurt etc) it’s not. It probably should just be called a high carbohydrate diet.”