Quarter of Brits are drinking plant-based milks, but are the dairy-free alternatives healthier?

Francesca Specter
Yahoo Style UK deputy editor
Plant-based milks are rising in popularity. [Photo: Getty]

Almost one in four of us are drinking plant-based milks such as oat, almond and soy milk.

This is according to the results of a poll conducted by market research firm Mintel, in which 23% of participants said they had consumed the milk alternatives, or alt-milks, in the past three months.

The figure is up from 19% in 2018.

Oat, coconut and almond milk alternatives have all grown in availability in the past year, according to the report.

Sales of oat milk grew 71% from 2017, coconut are up 16% and almond variants up 10%.

READ MORE: Vegan milk sales soar 70% in the UK as more Brits switch to plant-based alternatives

“This is part of a much wider plant-based movement, driven by concerns around health, ethics and the environment,” said Emma Clifford, associate director of UK food and drink at Mintel.

Are plant-based milks healthier?

As Clifford points out, health concerns are a key factor for consumers choosing alt-milks over dairy, with some 37% of 16-24 years olds saying they have reduced their cow’s milk consumption for this reason.

But are these alt-milks always healthier? Not necessarily, nutritionist Jenna Hope tells Yahoo UK.

READ MORE: Brand forced to recall its vegan yoghurt

“More and more people are drinking non-dairy milks and it's essential that people are aware of how to pick their milks wisely,” says Hope.

Added sugar

First off, make sure your dairy-free milk isn’t laced with a side of sugar.

Hope advises: “Ensure you're opting for unsweetened milk as some dairy alternatives are loaded with sugar or rice syrup.

“With four grams plus of sugar per 100ml in some brands your sugar consumption can quickly add up.”

Vitamins

Dairy milk is an important source of calcium – so those following a dairy-free diet need to be mindful they don’t miss out on this mineral.

“It's recommend that if you're avoiding dairy completely you ensure that your milks are fortified,” she says.

READ MORE: Eating cheese will make you 'happier'

“You should be looking for Vitamin D, B12 and calcium. Marks and Spencer has also added iodine to its oat milk recently.”

Oestrogen content

When it comes to soy milk, there’s a mix of health benefits and risks.

While some studies have found that drinking soy milk can reduce the risk of some cancers, including prostate and breast cancer, others have linked too much soy to kidney stones.

“Some research suggests that soy is a phytooestrogen,” adds Hope.

“This means that it responds to the amount of oestrogen you have. In practise this means that it can have positive effects on enhancing oestrogen when oestrogen levels are low yet also binds to oestrogen when oestrogen levels are high.”

Other considerations

“In addition to this, try mixing up your plant milks to ensure nutrient diversity and optimal gut microbiome.”

READ MORE: Backlash over the fish-eating vegan influencer

“Finally, it's important to know exactly what is in your milks. Some milks which are labelled as almond milk are predominantly rice milk with 1% almond.”

While health benefits are an important consideration for some, there is also some debate over whether dairy-free milks are better for the environment.

Some 36% of 16 to 24 year olds agreed dairy farming had a negative impact on the environment in the Mintel research. However, it has also been claimed almond milk production has a negative impact on the environment.

It is also worth mentioning that on the milk alternatives are more expensive compared to their cow’s milk equivalent – however, they do last longer (up to seven days compared to a just a couple of days for dairy) so there may be less waste.

Shop five of the best plant-based milk alternatives

1 Oatly Oat Drink Whole 1 Litre (£1.80, Tesco) Buy now.

2 Koko Dairy Free Unsweetened UHT Coconut Milk, 1 Litre, Pack of 6 (£9, Amazon) Buy now.

3 Alpro Fresh Roasted Almond Unsweetened Drink Alternative 1 Litre (£1.80, Tesco) Buy now.

4 Morrisons Long Life Sweetened Soya Drink, 1 Litre (£0.85, Amazon) Buy now.

5 Plenish Organic Hazelnut Milk, 1 Litre, Pack of 8 (£19, Amazon) Buy now.

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