Plant-based milks have become popular dairy alternatives for many people. They're helpful for those who suffer from a lactose sensitivity, offer balance for people trying to reduce their intake of animal products and they are a go-to drink for many vegans and vegetarians. But according to a recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports, a lot of nondairy drinkers automatically assume their milk is healthier than what comes from a cow — and that's not always true.
"Half of all American consumers are confused about plant milks and their nutritional profile," Ellen Klosz, a nutritionist and test program leader for Consumer Reports, told TODAY Food. "Many believe that the milks have higher levels of nutrients than cows milk, which is not necessarily true."
Consumer Reports surveyed over 1,000 adults in the U.S. and after finding out how many consumers weren't really paying attention to product labels, Klosz and her food testing team evaluated 35 types of nondairy milks, including various brands of almond, coconut, oat and soy, to determine how their nutritional profiles really stack up.
So what are the most important things to look for when buying nondairy milks?
The Consumer Reports team scored each milk based on its nutritional profile and the milk's flavor and texture (sensory attributes). They also compared the amount of vitamins and minerals present in any given nondairy milk versus a serving of cow's milk. Nutrition scores were based on calories, saturated fat, sodium, protein, fiber and sugar content, since a lot of plant milks actually have added sugars, unlike cow's milk where the sugar (lactose) is naturally occurring. Vitamin and mineral content compared included calcium, potassium and B vitamins, which all naturally occur in cow's milk. They also looked at those that are routinely added, like vitamins A and D.
"Those looking for a milk that's similar to cows milk should know that they do vary quite a bit, as far as the protein is concerned, because cow's milk has high amounts of protein," Klosz told TODAY. "You're going to see that in soy milk but not in almond milk."
Unsweetened Silk Organic Soy Milk, for example, ranked the highest overall out of the surveyed options. In terms of nutrition and texture, it was rated "very good" and "excellent," respectively, for having a comparable amount of vitamins and nutrients to cow's milk.
However, another Silk milk — the brand's Original Silk Coconut Milk — ranked the lowest overall, which was mostly due to its nutrition content. One cup contains 70 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 6 grams of carbs and no protein. It is, however, fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
Almond Dream's Almond Drink Unsweetened Original was the only milk of all 35 evaluated that contained the thickening agent carrageenan, a seaweed extract with some potentially unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects that's used in processed products like deli meat.
"The levels of fortification [also] vary substantially," Consumer Reports' Test Program Leader Amy Keating, who also worked on the project, said.
"Fortified" means that vitamins and minerals have been added to a product in which they don't naturally occur. Keating suggested that individuals buying plant milks need to look for milks labeled as "fortified," especially when buying beverages for kids and teens whose bodies are still growing.
Consumer Reports also acknowledged that many people might be choosing plant-based milks to lower their carbon footprint. However, different plants require different levels of care and not all are necessarily better for the environment. Almond milk, for example, actually requires more water than standard dairy milk to be processed.
Whether people are opting to buy plant-based milks occasionally or all the time, Consumer Reports says the goal of its review was to ensure that shoppers are more informed before hitting the grocery store.
"It's just important for consumers to read the labels and look at the ingredients in the products they're buying. Make sure carrageenan isn't there. And keep it balanced with other ways you get your proteins," Keating told TODAY. "We just felt like it's important to lay out how these products are different."
The full nondairy milk review will be published in Consumer Reports' upcoming November 2019 issue.