Plant-based drinks are increasingly popular among consumers looking for an alternative to cow’s milk.

The positive characteristics that plant-based drinks have in common are that they:

  • Are lactose free
  • Do not contain cholesterol
  • Contain less saturated fat than cow’s milk
  • Are good sources of B vitamins.

However, it should also be noted that, compared to milk, plant-based drinks:

  • Do not contain vitamin B12
  • Have a low calcium content, unless they are fortified (i.e. calcium is added by the manufacturer)
  • Have a lower quantity and quality of proteins.

In general, plant-based drinks have become a viable option for those with lactose intolerance (allergic to the sugars in milk). On top of this, plant-based drinks have a lower environmental impact than milk produced from cattle breeding.

If we decide to choose a plant-based drink, we must remember that this is an umbrella term for different types of drinks, each with its own unique flavour and nutritional characteristics.  Soy milk has a distinctive flavour that does not appeal to everyone. But it contains proteins in quantities and qualities very similar to those of cow’s milk. Another drink with an interesting flavour is barley milk, which has a low protein and lipid content and contains gluten, and is therefore not suitable for coeliacs. Similarly, oat drinks, which have a good fibre content, also contain beta-glucan, which makes it unsuitable for coeliacs. Almond milk has a popular flavour and is low in calories and high in vitamins, particularly vitamin E. Millet milk also contains many other vitamins (of group B), but it has a high caloric content. Rice milk is naturally the sweetest, as it has a high amount of sugar, while coconut milk is rich in saturated fat.

Therefore, when we choose a plant-based drink, we cannot just focus on its flavour but also our nutritional needs. In particular, if we totally cut out milk and its derivatives from our diet, we must make up for the quantities of calcium we need in other ways. Similarly, remember that in vegans, an alternative source of vitamin B12 will be necessary.

Alessandra Bordoni
Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences
University of Bologna