If you have milk, you have options. You can lighten your coffee or soak a cookie, ferment cheese or give yourself a mustache. You can swim a little cereal or mix a shake. Replacing such a universal substance is a difficult task. Still, there are plenty of reasons to look for alternatives.
About 9 square meters of land and about 630 liters of water are needed to produce one liter of cow’s milk. This is the area of two double beds and the volume of 10.5 beer kegs. The process of making a liter of milk also generates about 3.2 kilograms of greenhouse gases.
With the global popularity of milk, these costs are huge. in 2015 the dairy sector generates 1.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasesapproximately 3 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Preparation of vegetable milks – including oat, almond, rice and soy – generates about one third of the greenhouse gases and uses much less land and water than milk production, according to a 2018 report science.
Fueled by a growing base of environmentally conscious consumers, many plant-based milks are entering the market. According to SPINS, a company that collects data on natural and organic products, $ 2.6 billion in plant-based milk was sold in the United States in 2021. That’s a 33% increase in dollar sales since 2019. “The food industry has realized that consumers … I want change, “said food scientist David McClements of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Although plant-based milks are generally better for the environment and the climate, they do not provide the same nutrition. As stated in the iconic campaign for dairy products from the 80s of the last century, “Milk is good for the body.” The creamy drink contains 13 essential nutrients, including muscle-building protein, immune-boosting vitamin A and zinc, and bone-strengthening calcium and vitamin D. Plant-based milks usually contain smaller amounts of these nutrients, even when plant-based milks are fortified. Researchers are still unsure how well the body absorbs these nutrients.
Dairy products are very challenging to replace, says Leah Bessa, chief research officer of De Novo Dairy, a biotechnology company in Cape Town, South Africa that produces non-animal milk proteins. “In fact, you don’t have a good alternative that is sustainable and has the same nutritional profile and functionality.”
Room for improvements
What is milk anyway?
According to its classical definition, milk is a fluid that comes from the mammary gland of a female mammal. But Eva Thornberg, a food scientist at Lund University in Sweden who developed potato milk, prefers to focus on the chemical structure of milk. That’s the essence of his nourishing nature, she says. “It’s an emulsion … very small oil droplets that are scattered in water.”
This emulsion saturates the milk with its characteristic creaminess and makes milk the ideal means of transporting nutrients, notes McClements. The combination of butter and water means that milk can carry both water-soluble nutrients, such as riboflavin and vitamin B12, and oil-soluble, such as vitamins A and D.
And because the fat content is divided into many oil droplets – not one layer – human digestive enzymes have a huge amount of surface to react with. This makes the nutrients packed inside the drops easy and quick to absorb.
Most plant-based milks are also emulsions, McClements says, so they also have the potential to serve as excellent nutrient delivery systems. But for the most part, plant-based milk producers have focused much more on providing the right taste and mouthfeel to please consumers, he said. “We need a lot more work on nutrition.”
What is missing?
In terms of nutrition, the closest competitor to plant milk today is probably soy milk, said Megan Lot, a registered nutritionist at the Durham, North Carolina-based Health Wood Eating Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Soy milk contains almost as much protein as cow’s milk and this protein is just as complete – it contains all the essential amino acids. “This is actually approved by the USDA in child nutrition programs and school nutrition programs as a substitute for milk,” she said.
But soy milk and other plant-based milks do not reach other important nutrients. Parents often think they can give their children a glass of plant milk instead of a glass of cow’s milk and they will get everything they need, says Lot. “It’s just not like that.”
Vitamin D and calcium – especially important for a growing child – are the most difficult nutrients to produce from dairy products. Most of the other important components of milk can be obtained from a healthy diet of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and lean meats, says Lot. “If you’re a parent looking for an alternative to your child, this is probably the calcium and vitamin D… where you need to focus your decision.”
Many producers enrich plant milks with vitamin D and calcium to compete with or exceed the level in milk. But whether the body can absorb these added nutrients is another story. What consumers read on the nutrition label does not necessarily reflect how much their body will actually be able to absorb and use, Lot says.
This is because plant-based milks may contain naturally occurring plant molecules that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. For example, some plant-based milks, including oat and soy milks, contain phytic acid, which binds to calcium, iron and zinc and reduces the body’s absorption of these nutrients.
And adding too much of a good thing can have the opposite effect. For example, the introduction of high levels of calcium in almond milk can interfere with the absorption of vitamin D by the bodyMcClements and colleagues report in 2021 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
More research is needed to better understand how compounds interact in plant milk and how these interactions affect the body’s absorption of nutrients, McClements said. Focusing on the perfect balance of ingredients will help plant milk producers make more nutritious products that also taste good, he said. “What we’re trying to do is find this sweet place.”