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Plant Milk – The Ideal Milk Substitute?

Plant milk is becoming increasingly popular. Rice milk was the first grain milk used in vegan diets and by those with milk allergies. However, milk-like drinks can be made from almost all types of grain and seeds, e.g. B. from spelled, oats, rice, millet, almonds, hemp, and hazelnuts. Many of these drinks are an ideal milk substitute for coffee, muesli, or for cooking and baking. Under no circumstances should infants be fed with a plant milk instead of breast milk!

Plant milk – the vegan “milk”

Actually, the two terms “vegan” and “milk” cannot be combined. Because milk cannot be vegan, it is a mammal’s mother’s milk for its infant. If you make a drink from grain, seeds, nuts, or almonds, then this only looks like milk and is therefore often called that, but of course, it is not milk.

The matter has long since been regulated by law. Because in the EU, only that liquid that was produced in an udder and obtained through milking can be declared as “milk” in retail. Only in the USA, for example, is it allowed to sell soy milk, while in the EU soy drink has to be written on the packaging. Nevertheless, the term plant milk was used in ancient times:

Almond drinks, for example, were already being made in the Middle Ages. Nor did it mean a mixture of almonds and cow’s milk, as one might think. No, you crushed almonds, mixed the porridge with water, and drank the resulting white and therefore milk-like liquid. The first cereal milk was rice milk. She comes from Asia. It was only later – especially in Europe and the USA – that oat drink, millet drink, and spelled drink were added.

Plant Milk – The Production

In principle, all types of grain as well as nuts and seeds are suitable for producing a milk substitute – whether oats, spelled, hemp or sesame. A drink can also be made from tiger nuts or chestnuts that are reminiscent of animal milk in terms of appearance and consistency.

The industrial production of most plant milk is as follows: You take a whole grain, e.g. B. brown rice or dehusked oats. The grain is mixed with a lot of water, boiled, and mashed to a pulp. Certain enzymes (e.g. amylases) are then added to the pulp, which starts the fermentation. As a result, the carbohydrates in the grain are easier to digest, and the bioavailability of minerals and trace elements increases, while the content of the so-called anti-nutritive (substances that could inhibit mineral absorption) is reduced. At the same time, the taste improves: the plant milk now tastes sweet.

The solution is then filtered. Fiber and other water-insoluble components remain. They are mostly used as animal feed or processed into other products.

In order to achieve a pleasant consistency, some vegetable oil is added to the cereal drink, usually sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, safflower oil, or hemp oil. A milky water-oil emulsion is formed. So that the drink does not separate or cream, some plant milk is either homogenized or an emulsifier is added. An emulsifier is not absolutely necessary with rice milk. Some plant milk is flavored – e.g. B. with vanilla, cocoa, or coconut. Mixtures with fruits have also been on the market for a long time – such as rice milk with mango-vanilla flavor.

Plant milk alternatives provide plenty of carbohydrates

Since a grain drink or nut drink consists to a very large extent (around 90 percent) of water and its solid components have been sieved out, their nutrient content is of course not comparable to that of the respective raw material (grain, oilseed, nuts, etc.), but rather low.

Plant milk only provides carbohydrates in relevant quantities and therefore quickly provides energy, so that athletes also like to drink it.

Calcium banned in organic plant-based drinks

Since plant milk is often consumed by vegans or people with milk intolerance, it is also available and enriched with calcium. The mineral is added in the same dose as is present in milk (120 mg per 100 g) – in organic products this was the case for many years in the form of the powdered, calcium-rich red algae Lithothamnium calcareum. For a short time (2021), this enrichment was forbidden for organic products, but is now (summer 2022) allowed again in some cases (e.g. “Oats & Algae” from Natumi).

You can also enrich your drink with calcium yourself because non-organic drinks are not recommended, as you can see from the example of Alpro’s soy milk (with calcium), which contains aromas, stabilizers, and acidity regulators as well as two sugars (sugar and fructose):

Soy Base (Water, Hulled Soybeans (5.6%)), Soluble Corn Fiber, Fructose, Sugar, Calcium Carbonate, Acidity Regulator (Potassium Phosphates), Sea Salt, Flavouring, Stabilizer (Gellan), Natural Flavouring, Vitamins (B2, B12, D2)

Sugared drinks do not belong in a healthy diet, and certainly, not drinks sweetened with fructose.

A high-quality organic soy drink from z. B. Natumi, on the other hand, contains nothing more than soybeans (8%) and water. You can enrich this yourself with calcium-rich powder if you wish, e.g. B. a capsule of red algae (open the capsule) or the Sango sea coral.

Organic or not organic

Almost all plant milk alternatives on offer were originally produced in organic quality and sold in organic supermarkets, but have long since been available in conventional quality – together with soy drinks – in every larger supermarket and also in drugstores.

In any case, try different brands and manufacturers. For example, a rice drink from five different manufacturers can taste different every time. The taste is so different that it can happen that you don’t like one rice drink at all, while the other becomes your favorite drink.

Plant milk alternatives are low in fat, cholesterol-free, and low in protein

Of course, plant milk – in contrast to cow’s milk – is free of animal fats, animal proteins, and cholesterol. Oat drink – just like oats – is said to have cholesterol-lowering properties due to its beta-glucan content. Beta-glucans are water-soluble dietary fibers that migrate from the oat grain to the drink. Apparently, 150 – 200 ml of oat drinks already contain the amount of this dietary fiber required by the American health authority FDA.

If you also consider that in the rich countries of the world, where there is an abundance of food, the protein intake is sometimes twice as high as is commonly recommended, a low-protein drink is a helpful food to reduce the excess protein intake.

The low-fat plant milk also supports a low-fat diet. Only the low-fat content of the added oils is included, which rarely accounts for more than 1 percent.

Grain drink is only a limited substitute for cow’s milk

However, a grain drink should not necessarily be considered a cow’s milk substitute:

  • Cow’s milk is the cow’s baby food for its calf and basically has little to do with humans and their diet, so it doesn’t necessarily belong in a healthy diet. Therefore, it does not have to be “replaced” for nutritional reasons. A healthy diet is about providing yourself with all nutrients and vital substances – and for this, a person from the age of three at the latest no longer needs milk. Before that, humans need mother’s milk, i.e. the milk of their own mother, but not cow’s milk.
  • Cow’s milk is animal milk and is so nutritious that it can serve as the sole food for a calf for weeks and make it grow enormously. A grain drink, on the other hand, is neither nutritious nor infant formula. A comparison is therefore actually pointless.
  • A cereal drink only looks similar to milk and can be substituted for milk in many recipes. Since it is milk protein-free and lactose-free, it is well tolerated by people with milk protein intolerance and people with lactose intolerance.
  • The grain drink is a delicious drink for in-between and can be used wonderfully for cooking, baking, and the preparation of desserts and shakes. Many people also like grain milk in milk coffee.
  • In the case of rice milk, the grain drink is gluten-free and is therefore also wonderfully tolerated by people with gluten intolerance. Other vegan drinks such as soy milk, hemp milk, millet milk, hazelnut milk, and almond milk are of course also gluten-free.
  • Spelled milk contains gluten. With oat drinks, you should make sure that “gluten-free” is written on the packaging (e.g. Natumi’s “oat drink gluten-free”). But there is also a soluble powder made from gluten-free oats that you can use to make an extremely high-quality oat drink in no time at all:

Quickly make your own oat milk – from soluble oat powder

If you neither buy oat milk nor want to make it yourself from oats or oat flakes and also want pure oat milk, i.e. without oils, emulsifiers, thickeners, flavorings, and other additives, then we recommend the organic oat drink powder from Unmilk. It consists only of gluten-free oats, nothing else. Put a few measuring spoons in a bottle of water, shake the bottle – and the oat milk is ready.

Make plant milk alternatives yourself

You can also make plant-based milk yourself. However, the fermentation process then fails here. The simplest method, using rice milk as an example, is the following:

  • Put 200 g of cooked whole grain rice with 1 liter of water in a high-performance blender and mix the mixture for about 3 minutes. If you want, add 3 to 4 pitted dates to the rice and water – the homemade rice milk is ready. Of course, this now provides significantly more nutrients and vital substances than the industrial variants. Because you don’t remove the solid components, you get all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals of 200 g of cooked brown rice per liter. If the drink is too thick for you, you can of course pour it through a sieve, but then get the lower-nutrient version again.
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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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