Plant-based milks have surged in popularity among those following diet and fitness trends. Several factors fuel this rise, including the increasing number of people adopting vegan and vegetarian diets, concerns about lactose intolerance, and growing awareness of the environmental impact of dairy farming.

Popular plant-based alternatives to dairy milk include some of the most popular healthy foods to eat: almonds, oats, soy, and coconut. Most people believe that these offer diverse flavors and are healthier than regular milk.

However, we dug deeper to actually understand the ingredients that go into these milks and how producers make them.

In this blog, some of our findings may surprise you and make you question your future milk choices.

Most consumers choose plant based alternatives due to the following benefits:

  1. Many perceive plant-based milks to be healthier than cow’s milk. ie lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol 
  2. Plant milks are also a good option for those who are lactose intolerance or have milk allergies
  3. Some plant milks like soy and almond milk are high in nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals 
  4. Plant milk production has a much lower environmental impact compared to dairy milk in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and land use
  5. Plant milks suit vegan and plant-based diets that avoid animal products.

However, consuming plant based milk has drawbacks that you may not be aware of.

During the manufacturing process, which involves soaking, grinding, filtering, and straining plant-based ingredients, producers may add various additives and ingredients to plant milk to improve texture, taste, shelf-life, and nutritional profile:

  • Added sugars: Cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup etc. are added to improve sweetness and flavor. [1,11,15]
  • Oils/Fats: Oils like rapeseed, sunflower, or palm oils are added as fat sources and to improve the feel inside the mouth. [11,15]
  • Thickeners/Stabilizers: Gums (carrageenan, gellan, guar) and emulsifiers are used to thicken the milk and improve texture. Some like carrageenan are controversial due to potential inflammatory effects. [11,12,15]
  • Flavors: Natural and artificial flavors are added.
  • Preservatives: Some plant milks may contain preservatives to extend shelf-life.

Health Risks associated with the added ingredients

A. Sugar:

Consuming excessive amounts of added sugars can lead to numerous negative health effects like…Weight gain and obesity, Type 2 diabetes,  insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction, Heart disease, High blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and inflammation, Fatty liver disease, Cognitive decline,  Tooth decay, Gout and Cancer

B. Rapeseed (canola), sunflower, and palm oils

These can vary depending on the specific type and how they are consumed…

Rapeseed/Canola Oil: highly processed and refined rapeseed oil contains fewer nutrients than cold-pressed versions. There are concerns about inflammatory effects due to omega-6 to omega-3 ratio after processing.

Sunflower Oil: High in polyunsaturated omega-6 linoleic acid, which can be pro-inflammatory if consumed in excess. May increase risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer when heated to high temperatures and oxidized.

Palm Oil: High in saturated fats, which can raise LDL cholesterol and heart disease risk

Oils higher in unsaturated fats like olive oil or avocado oil may be healthier options. Be sure to read labels carefully and avoiding excessive heating of oils to minimize oxidation and formation of harmful compounds.

C. Gums like carrageenan, gellan, and guar gum, as well as emulsifiers

They are commonly used as food additives and are not without their potential health concerns:

Carrageenan: Some studies suggest it may cause inflammation in the digestive tract and promote intestinal lesions and tumors in animal studies [17,18]. Some people report improvement in digestive issues like bloating and IBS after eliminating carrageenan from their diet.

Gellan Gum: Gellan gum is generally recognized as safe by regulatory bodies based on toxicology studies.

Guar Gum: Considered safe in permitted amounts, but high doses can cause intestinal obstruction and other gastrointestinal side effects like gas and bloating. People with gut issues like IBS or SIBO may want to limit or avoid guar gum.

Emulsifiers (e.g. polysorbates, carboxymethylcellulose): Some studies link emulsifier consumption to increased inflammation, altered gut microbiome, and higher risk of metabolic and intestinal diseases [6,16].

In general, while these additives are approved, consuming them moderately is important for a balanced diet that incorporates a variety of good health natural foods. Those with digestive issues may want to limit or avoid foods with these additives and observe if symptoms improve. Researchers still need to conduct more research on their long-term effects.

References:

https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-to-know-about-plant-based-milk

https://addjoi.com/blogs/news/5-common-plant-milk-additives-and-why-you-should-avoid-them

https://www.webmd.com/diet/palm-oil-health-benefits

https://www.webmd.com/diet/sunflower-oil-good-for-you

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6357563/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9962526/

https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1139/palm-oil

https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/rapid-risk-assessment-what-is-the-long-term-risk-of-erucic-acid-to-uk-consumers-if-sunflower-oil-in-food-is-substituted-with

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/palm-oil

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41430-023-01344-1

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/rapeseed-oil

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/by-the-way-doctor-is-palm-oil-good-for-you

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/too-much-sugar

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-bitter-truth-about-added-sugar

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9966020/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar

https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7010168/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7010168/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3294053/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34146449/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7009714/

https://www.medicinenet.com/what_is_gellan_gum_and_is_it_bad_for_you/article.htm

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323117

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