Are Plant-Based "Milks" The Margarine of the 21st Century?

Full fat dairy doesn’t make you fat or give you heart disease. But nutritional guidelines still continue to recommend the substitution of non-fat or low-fat dairy for full fat, something that flies in the face of an overall movement to consume less processed foods.
The rise of plant-based milks resembles in many ways the rise of margarine as a substitute for butter. In both cases, industry and misguided scientists collaborated to produce an industrial product to substitute for a natural food, based on an unproven projection of health benefits. Subsequent studies have shown that this was an unmitigated health disaster, as the trans fats created in the production of margarine substantially increase the risk of heart disease.

Anti-Dairy Propaganda

Vegan/vegetarian sources of nutritional information like one green planet make unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of plant-based milks and the dangers of traditional milk:

the consumption of dairy products has been linked to everything from increased risk of ovarian and prostate cancers to ear infections and diabetes. Fortunately, plant-based milks provide a convenient and healthful alternative to cow’s milk. And if you are currently making the transition to a dairy-free diet, you will find that going dairy-free has never been easier. Soy, almond, hemp, coconut, and rice milks, among others, are taking over the dairy case—and claiming supermarket aisles all their own.

Growth of Plant-Based “Milks”

In response to consumers desire for healthier alternatives to dairy, non-dairy liquid milk-like substitutes  have been thriving. Almond milk, the current darling of plant-based milks (PMB) , sales have grown 250% in the last 5 years during which time,  the total milk market has shrunk by more  than $1 billion.
In western Europe, sales of almond, coconut, rice and oat milks doubled in the five years to 2014; in Australia they rose threefold, and in North America sales shot up ninefold, according to Euromonitor.
Big global beverage food and drinks companies have been entering the PBM market recognizing that American consumers have become aware of the unhealthiness of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Coca-Cola, for example, recently purchased Unilever’s AdeS soya brand. and believes that PBM consumption will grow faster than any other segment of the beverage industry over the next 5 to 10 years. Coca-Cola also recently purchased the China Green brand of plant-based protein drinks.

What’s in Soy Milk and Why It’s Not Real Food

The plant-based milks are a mixed bag of highly processed liquids. Let’s look at soy milk which has been widely promoted as a healthy substitute for dairy. Empowered Sustenance points out that there is reason to be concerned about all the added ingredients found in Silk, a popular soy milk.

Soymilk (Filtered Water, Whole Soybeans), Cane Sugar, Sea Salt, Carrageenan, Natural Flavor, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Riboflavin (B2), Vitamin B12.

The long list of ingredients give you an idea of how much processing is needed to approximate the nutritional components of real dairy. Whether adding back synthetic Vitamin D2, synthetic Vitamin A and calcium carbonate simulates the nutritional benefits of the naturally occurring vitamins in a naturally fatty milieu, is anyone’s guess.

Variable Nutritional  Content of Plant-Based “Milks” asked 3 academic nutritional PhD’s how they would advise consumers on substituting nondairy “milk:”

Dr. Macrina: Plant-based milks are quite variable in what they contain while cow’s milk is pretty standard. We know where cow’s milk comes from. Plant-based milks are manufactured and can have a variety of additives. I urge consumers to read the label to determine what’s best for them.
Dr. Savaiano: Yes, consumers should read the label very carefully. Plant-based drinks certainly can be a healthy choice depending on how they’re formulated.
Dr. Weaver: The plant-based beverages all cost a good deal more than cow’s milk. So, one needs to determine how much they want to pay for the nutrients and determine which nutrients you need to get from other foods. A main nutrient expected from milk is calcium. Only soy milk has been tested for calcium bioavailability (by my lab) which was determined to be as good as from cow’s milk. But none of the other plant beverages have been tested and they should be.

Is There Scientific Evidence To Support Replacing Milk and Dairy Products with Plant-based Drinks?

A recent review paper from Danish researchers attempted to answer the question:

Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. 

They concluded:

The most recent evidence suggested that intake of milk and dairy products was associated with reduced risk of childhood obesity. In adults, intake of dairy products was shown to improve body composition and facilitate weight loss during energy restriction. In addition, intake of milk and dairy products was associated with a neutral or reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke. Furthermore, the evidence suggested a beneficial effect of milk and dairy intake on bone mineral density but no association with risk of bone fracture. Among cancers, milk and dairy intake was inversely associated with colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, gastric cancer, and breast cancer, and not associated with risk of pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, or lung cancer, while the evidence for prostate cancer risk was inconsistent. Finally, consumption of milk and dairy products was not associated with all-cause mortality.

They went on to examine the question: Is there scientific evidence to substantiate that replacing milk and dairy products with plant-based drinks will improve health?
They noted the marked variation in nutritional content of the plant-based milks:

the nutrient density of plant-based milk substitutes varies considerably between and within types, and their nutritional properties depend on the raw material used, the processing, the fortification with vitamins and minerals, and the addition of other ingredients such as sugar and oil. Soy drink is the only plant-based milk substitute that approximates the protein content of cow’s milk, whereas the protein contents of the drinks based on oat, rice, and almonds are extremely low,

and their similarity to sugar-sweetened beverages:

Despite the fact that most of the plant-based drinks are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, some of these products have higher energy contents than whole milk due to a high content of oil and added sugar.
Some plant-based drinks have a sugar content equal to that of sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been linked to obesity, reduced insulin sensitivity , increased liver, muscle, and visceral fat content as well as increased blood pressure, and increased concentrations of triglyceride and cholesterol in the blood

PBM and real milk also differ with respect to important electrolytes and elements:

Analyses of several commercially available plant-based drinks carried out at the Technical University of Denmark showed a generally higher energy content and lower contents of iodine, potassium, phosphorus, and selenium in the plant-based drinks compared to semi-skimmed milk

and some PBM contain potentially dangerous components:

Also, rice drinks are known to have a high content of inorganic arsenic, and soy drinks are known to contain isoflavones with oestrogen-like effects. Consequently, The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration concluded that the plant-based drinks cannot be recommended as full worthy alternatives to cow’s milk which is consistent with the conclusions drawn by the Swedish National Food Agency

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of the health effects of whole foods rather than individual nutrients. Plant-based milks are not whole or real foods:

The importance of studying whole foods instead of single nutrients is becoming clear as potential nutrient–nutrient interactions may affect the metabolic response to the whole food compared to its isolated nutrients. As the plant-based drinks have undergone processing and fortification, any health effects of natural soy, rice, oats, and almonds cannot be directly transferred to the drinks, but need to be studied directly.

The Skeptical Cardiologist Recommendation

Consumers should be very cautious in their consumption of plant-based milks. Eerily reminiscent of the push to switch from butter to margarine in the past, these drinks cannot be considered as healthier than dairy products.
They are creations of industry, promoted and produced by large companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever, whose goal is profit, not consumer’s health.
The PBMs are not true whole or real foods and their nutritional content varies wildly. Some resemble sugar-sweetened beverages like Coca-Cola.
If one of the synthetic ingredients added to these beverages turns out to have the markedly negative health effect that trans fats had, the analogy to margarine will be complete.
My  Eternal Fiancee’ has true lactose intolerance and has baristas substitute almond or soy milk when ordering a latte’.  I understand that but I’ve been trying to convince her (with increasing success lately!)  to drink my Chemex pour-over coffee and adulterate it with nothing, butter, cream or coconut oil.
Skeptically Yours,
Featured image courtesy of One Green Planet.
For your enjoyment I present a mind-bogglingly complicated table listing the various nutrients in a mind-bogglingly long list of different plant-based milks (including hemp milk!):



17 thoughts on “Are Plant-Based "Milks" The Margarine of the 21st Century?”

  1. I wish I could drink real milk, whether from a cow or a goat. It causes my tonsils to inflame, and a large amount will give me a runny nose and chest congestion for days.

  2. Do your cautions apply to homemade PBMs? I make an almond milk that contains nothing but almonds and water. It’s tastier than store bought but only lasts a few days.

  3. There’s a very interesting book that discusses the Dairy Industry’s actions in order to promote the notion that somehow all children need milk to be healthy. It’s clearly not true. The book is called “Re-imagining “Milk: Cultural and Biological Perspectives” by Andrea S. Wiley. It’s a good read.
    Also a nice article from 2014 in the NYT about this:

  4. I make my own almond milk and have done so for years. It’s quick (2-3 minutes while the bread is in the toaster) and easy and has no additives. It’s not processed food and we get plenty of protein from the other foods we eat. Too much animal protein may be linked to certain cancers (ovarian, prostate, etc.) and other disorders ( Plant-based “milks” are also ecologically sound, having a much lower carbon footprint even when considering the high water requirements of almond trees.
    It’s not even clear that dairy is the best source of calcium. That idea was planted into our collective “knowledge” by the dairy industry after WWII. Some of us who are lactose intolerant cannot absorb calcium well from dairy products and dairy products can be high in saturated fat as well as retinol, which at high levels can paradoxically weaken bones. There are plenty of greens – kale, collard, spinach, chard – and other vegetables and legumes with high calcium content.
    As far as the raw (animal) milk discussion, I don’t think there’s any real evidence that it is more nourishing than pasteurized animal milk and I don’t believe it’s worth the risk – especially for the very young, the elderly, and women who are pregnant.
    Here you go:
    1 cup almond meal
    5 cups water
    Throw in blender for a minute or so…. done.
    You could use a date and vanilla if you’d like, but I don’t. You can use whole almonds that you’ve soaked in water overnight too. You can also strain it, but the pulp is very fine and if used for cereal, it’s generally not necessary.
    P.S. Goat milk? Tastes as bad as it smells! :)

    • Marilyn,
      Thanks for the thoughtful info on almond milk. I will give your recipe a try for the sake of the eternal fiancee’ and her lactose intolerance. I especially like that it is not made in a factory and therefore has not had multiple synethetic ingredients infused.
      I agree with you that a number of factors have to be considered when deciding what to put in our bodies: environmental effects, etc.
      I’ve not looked closely at the evidence on dairy versus other sources of calcium in terms of bone strength, it seems that dairy proponents emphasize this as a positive for their side and focus on the phytic acid in soy milk, for example, as a factor that reduces absorption of calcium. To answer the question with certainty we would need a randomized trial-maybe Coca-Cola would like to sponsor it!
      Raw goat milk-never had it and never will.

    • Putting aside my disagreement with your comments on health and scientific evidence, how can you possibly think soy milk, for example, is better for the environment? Unless it’s organic, which I am sure isn’t the case of most of the commercial brands available, soy cultures are responsible for loss of genetic biodiversity (GMOs) and deforestation in the Amazon… Plus, it would be naive to forget the plant-juice (I’m sorry, but they’re not ‘milk’) industry also has vested interests in the success of their products! If there is a dairy lobby, there is also a soy lobby, and a fake milk lobby!

      • Most dairy cows eat feeds made from corn and soy. I think up to 70% of soy product goes into feeding livestock.
        So feeding a cow a crate of soy to produce some milk is more environmentally damaging than using the soy to produce milk directly

        • Midwest Dairy when asked what cows eat writes “A cow that is milking eats about 100 pounds each day of feed, which is a combination of hay, grain, silage and proteins (such as soybean meal), plus vitamins and minerals. Farmers employ professional animal nutritionists to develop scientifically formulated, balanced and nutritious diets for their cows. Cows also need fresh, clean water.
          USDA statistics show that US dairy farmers are producing almost three times more milk with about half the number of cows compared to 1960, thereby reducing the total amount of feed, water and space needed, and resulting in less manure. Learn more”
          Personally, I try to eat dairy products that come from pasture raised cows which I think provides a good combination of envioronmentally sensitive production and healthy dairy components.

    • The link appears to be a promotional piece for a book by Michael Cutler, MD. Cutler’s website appears to engage in scare-mongering with respect to statins for the purpose of selling his books and promoting his “integrative” practice. I would refer you to my post entitled “functional medicine is fake medicine”. Integrative medicine is another code word for pseudoscientific medicine and practitioners should be assiduously avoided.
      The piece starts with describing the case of Duane Graveline, a vey troubled man who spent the latter part of his life attempting to scare patients from taking statins. Here is his NY Times obituary (
      There is no scientific evidence to suggest statins cause dementia.

  5. Well, this lactose intolerant person just never drinks milk..nor would I drink those substitutes. I have always thought it absurd that people thought drinking milk was really all that healthy. I mean it is great for a baby cow, but an adult human? I had a heart attack..two actually, and managed to survive both. it would be just really odd if i hadn’t then how could I respond here? in any event, I stopped using margarine. the doc, a wonderful cardiologist, asked me ‘why would you eat something that was designed to make turkeys fat?” after researching margarine, I thought…I am not a turkey and heck no, I don’t want to be fattened up” so I changed over to a med diet.. extra virgin olive oil, lots of fish, no red meats…and I use butter on the tiny amount of bread I eat. The upshot of all of it…i lost 56 pounds, am off the BP meds, have lowered my A1C significantly, lowered those nasty lipids and have great HDL.


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