The Pitfalls of Plant-Based Milk – Why It’s Not As Healthy As You Think

Agnes Ryu

Plant-based milks like almond, oat, soy, and coconut have exploded in popularity in recent years. Many health-conscious consumers are switching from dairy to these trendy nut and seed “mylks” believing them to be a healthier choice. However, the health claims surrounding these substitutes are often overblown. There are several reasons why plant-based milks may not measure up to good old-fashioned cow’s milk when it comes to nutritional value and health impacts.

Overrated Nut and Seed Nutrition

Nuts and seeds like almonds and oats contain some beneficial nutrients. However, their reputation as nutritional powerhouses may be overrated as they also contain anti-nutrients and plant defense chemicals which impair nutrient absorption and cause allergies. For example, almonds are high in oxalates which can inhibit mineral absorption, cause kidney stones and gout in susceptible people, and may damage mitochondria. Other anti-nutrients like phytic acid and lectins are also common in nuts, seeds, and grains. Additionally, the high omega-6 content of most nuts and seeds is readily oxidized, contributing to free radical damage. When processed into milks, the beneficial nutrients of the whole food itself are degraded further while the anti-nutrients largely remain. For instance, research shows almond milk only retains trace amounts of the healthy fats and protein found in whole almonds. The purported nutrition of nuts and seeds can be overstated given the presence of various compounds that limit nutrient bioavailability.

Fortified Yet Lacking

Plant-based milks lack many of the key micronutrients that dairy milk provides in abundance like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and vitamin A. To help bridge nutritional gaps, most commercial brands enrich their products via synthetic vitamin and mineral fortification. However, research still finds most alternative milks like soy and almond to be lacking key micronutrients compared to cow’s milk, even after fortification. Their nutritional value pales in comparison to whole food sources like dairy.

Additives and Emulsifiers

To achieve the thick, creamy texture and milk-like consistency consumers expect, additives like gums, emulsifiers, and stabilizers are added during processing of nut and plant milks. One commonly used emulsifier is carrageenan, which has been linked inflammation, gastrointestinal issues, and even cancer in animal research. Consumers seeking healthier alternatives may be surprised to find these unwanted additives lurking in commercial alt-milk products.

High in Inflammation-Promoting Vegetable Oils

Inflammation is at the root cause of many modern health conditions. Diets high in polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils promote systemic inflammation, lowers metabolism and affects hormones. Unfortunately, most alternative milks like oat, almond, and soy contain highly processed inflammatory seed oils. Some cans of coconut milk may also contain addition of soybean or canola oil. Compared to dairy from grass-fed cows which contains beneficial dairy fats, these commercial plant-based drinks are swimming in oils our bodies are not adapted to handle in such high quantities.

Another Ultra-Processed Food-like Substance

Plant-based alternative milks have a wholesome, eco-friendly image, but they are actually highly processed, engineered products far removed from their whole food origins. They simply cannot replicate all the nutritional benefits of real dairy milk. They come with health drawbacks thanks to multiple additives, anti-nutrient contents of nuts/seeds, and inflammatory oil added. At the end of the day, foods and nutrients are the raw materials for our bodies to produce hormones, energy, and maintain wellbeing.  Anyone battling hormonal issues, reproductive health challenges, and fatigue should seek out diets based around truly natural, minimally processed real foods – not another category of highly manufactured, ultra-processed food-like substances. What we choose to regularly put on our plates and in our cups really matters.

Agnes Ryu

Agnes Ryu

Dr. Ryu is a clinician and biochemist specializing in integrative medicine. Her clinical interests include fertility, hormones, metabolism, healthy ageing, menopause, and natural breast cancer care. As an integrative practitioner, Dr. Ryu aims to uncover the root causes of health issues and strives to empower patients with the knowledge and tools to take charge of their own health.

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