Milk vs “Milk”

Recently a friend asked me what I thought about whey protein. She wondered about using it as a smoothie ingredient, which is not a bad idea. If you’re making a fruit smoothie, adding whey (or soy) protein powder boosts protein. If your smoothie is a meal replacement, your meal now has significant protein. All good.

It got me thinking yet again about the problem of plant “milk.” These watery extracts of ground up nuts or grains are very popular because …. well, I’m not sure why except for clever marketing. Certainly they can’t be popular for nutritional reasons. Other than soy, the nutritional content is pretty much zilch.

But wait! What about the calcium or whatever other nutrients might be listed on the Nutrition Facts label? Those numbers refer to added vitamin or mineral powders. Even soy milk has added vitamins and minerals to try to boost the nutrient levels closer to real cow’s milk. You’d achieve the same effect by taking a calcium tablet with a glass of water.

Maybe flavor? Well, if your idea of flavor is chemically flavored plant “milk” with added sugar, then you might be a convert. But you could get the same sugary effect from a soft drink.

Certainly not for the protein content. Real milk is a very good source of protein. Plant milk is absolutely not, soy being the only exception, and even then soy milk does not have the same amount as cow’s or goat’s milk. Plant “milks” have about as much protein as a glass of orange juice. Which isn’t saying much.

I’m Not A Fan

Let’s say you’re an older woman trying to keep up protein intake for muscles, and boost intake of bone nutrients like calcium. A steady diet of almond or coconut milk will contribute next to nothing towards those goals. Even with the sprinkling of calcium powder, plant milks are still lacking other nutrients that real milk has (B12, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, etc.). So no, I’m not a fan of this stuff.

You can find some versions pumped up with added protein. Here’s the ingredients list for one such:

ALMOND MILK (WATER, ALMONDS), PEA PROTEIN, CHICORY ROOT EXTRACT, DRIED CANE SYRUP, RICE PROTEIN, RICE STARCH, PECTIN, TAPIOCA DEXTROSE, NATURAL FLAVOR, ALGIN (KELP EXTRACT), MAGNESIUM PHOSPHATE, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE, LOCUST BEAN GUM, LIVE CULTURES, CITRIC ACID, MONK FRUIT EXTRACT, VITAMIN D2, VITAMIN B12. 

Wow, without all those added nutrients, flavorings and texturizes, this almond “milk” wouldn’t add up to much on its own. Here’s the list for real milk:

Grade A Organic Milk, Vitamin D3

ingredients list for real milk

When you add protein powder to a plant “milk”, you have to also add sugar sweeteners to mask the off-flavor of the protein powder. It’s why whey protein can work in a fruit smoothie — the sweetness of the fruit hides the protein. You wouldn’t just drink plain unsweetened whey protein mixed into water.

What’s my point? Plant “milks” aren’t unhealthy or dangerous in any way. They’re just a waste of time in my professional opinion. If you’re allergic to dairy, soy is the best choice, since it at least has some natural protein content.

Here’s another way of looking at plant milks: they’re basically plant “juice”. Grains, nuts and beans are very low water content, so you have to grind up the nut or grain or bean and soak the pulverized pulp in water. Strain out the pulp; voil√†: plant “juice”. Ironically real fruit juice is now under a cloud of negativity about supposed links to obesity. Even though real fruit juice is loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. But for some reason plant juice made out of nuts or grains is OK, even when loader with added sugar.

If you’re still sold on almond “milk” or coconut “milk”, well that’s your business. You are likely using it for reasons other than nutrition. Maybe add some whey protein to at least boost the protein. At which point you will have turned your plant “milk” into something resembling real cow’s milk.