What Plant-Based ‘Milk’ is Best?

May 6, 2022

By Anna Varriano

The Plant-Based Milk Industry is Growing!

In 2020, the retail sales of ‘milk alternative beverages’ were US$336.9 million in Canada and US$2.8 billion in the United States. That’s a lot of glasses of plant-based milk!  Agriculture Canada expects the plant-based market to continue growing, with a compound annual growth of 8.4% from 2021 to 2025. If those numbers aren’t enough to demonstrate the growth of this market, consider this fact: between January 2018 and February 2021, 161 milk alternative beverages were launched in Canada while 264 were launched in the United States. (1)

So Many Options! What to Choose?

With so many options to choose from, it’s tough to know which is best, especially given all the ‘features’ to consider, including:

  • Sweetened or unsweetened? If sweetened, how is it sweetened?
  • Flavoured (chocolate? vanilla?) or unflavoured?
  • Does it contain anything you are allergic to (e.g. nuts, soy, corn/high fructose corn syrup, etc)?
  • Does it come in environmentally-friendly packaging?
  • Does it taste good?
  • Does it have a nice texture?
  • Is it organic? Free from GMOs?
  • Does it contain a thickener that could cause gastro-intestinal distress (e.g. carrageenan)?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Is it nutritious?

I usually have some type of plant-based ‘milk’ in my fridge that I use for the odd time I have cereal for breakfast or do some baking. I’ve tried almond, cashew, coconut, macadamia, rice, and oat ‘milks’ (those of you who know me know I avoid soy for many reasons). I always choose unsweetened and unflavoured beverages and look for the ones that have the fewest number of ingredients, and no potentially harmful thickeners, such as carrageenan. I have tried pea and hemp milk at trade shows but have never purchased them (I don’t commonly see them in grocery stores and they are more costly than other alternatives).

Nutrition Isn’t The Whole Story

Another factor I take into consideration when choosing a plant-based milk alternative is its environmental impact. Some time ago, I read an article entitled: “Which Plant-Based Milk is Best For The Environment?’. What follows is my summary of some of the keys points the article made related to various plant-based milks. If you have time you can read the full article by clicking here.

Soy Milk

  • Lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to dairy milk
  • Uses less than 1/10 of the water compared to almonds
  • Better protein content compared to almond milk
  • Requires more land to grow compared to almonds or rice – parts of the Amazon are being destroyed to grow it (soy is in so many packaged foods)
  • Genetically engineered/Roundup-ready = pollutes ecosystems and potential carcinogen, so buy organic

Almond Milk

  • Growing almonds (and most nuts) requires a lot of water (3.2 gallons per almond)
  • 80% of the world’s almond supply is from California – where serious droughts are an ongoing issue
  • Although almonds are nutrient dense, the process that most manufacturers use to turn them into milk eliminates most of the nutrients (and not many almonds are used in a carton of milk)

Oat Milk

  • Canada is one of the top producers of oats
  • Production uses less energy/produces lower emissions than that of cow’s milk
  • Uses 80% less land than cow’s milk
  • Of all the plants turned into milk, oats generally use the least water (7x less than almond or cow’s milk)
  • More nutrient dense than almond milk
  • May be contaminated with glyphosate, so buy organic

Pea Milk

  • One of the newest alternatives so not easily found in stores
  • Need less water than other crops, so can grow where water is more scarce
  • Rich in nutrients, especially protein
  • Not genetically modified
  • Flavour may be a challenge

Hemp Milk

  • Environmental benefits – ranked among the top 5 in 16 common crops studied regarding pesticide use and erosion
  • Uses more water than oat, soy, or pea, but still much less than almonds or cows
  • Contains more protein than almond or oat, but less than soy or pea

Unfortunately, the article did not ‘declare’ a winner, as there are so many factors and not enough research has been done to be able to do an accurate comparison.

An important concept to remember related to nutrition is variety and moderation. That holds true for plant-based milks too; however, if I had to pick one, I’d pick oat milk. Why? Because even though other milks are supposedly more nutrient/protein dense, I don’t consider these plant-based milks as an important source of nutrients of any kind. If you want to benefit from the full nutritional value of oats, make yourself a bowl of porridge with steel cut oats! If you want to benefit from the full nutritional value of almonds, eat a hand full of soaked, raw almonds. If you want to benefit from the full nutritional value of yellow peas, make yourself a pot of split pea soup – you get the picture! I also like the flavour and texture of oat milk the best and value its other benefits:

  • oats are easily grown in Canada (please make sure the oat milk you buy uses oats grown in Canada – apparently the second largest producer is Russia)
  • growing oat crops is better for the environment on many fronts
  • oat milk is readily available in virtually all grocery stores
  • oat milk is affordable

Whatever type of plant-based milk you choose, read the ingredient label to ensure you are making the best choice, or better yet, make your own!

Making Your Own is Easy … and Economical!

I have made my own coconut, almond, and oat milk. It’s SUPER easy and only requires 3 ingredients:

  • 4 cups of filtered water
  • 1 cup of dry unsweetened coconut, or raw almonds, or rolled oats
  • a pinch of salt

You can add flavours/sweeteners if you like, for example some natural vanilla extract and cinnamon and/or a splash of maple syrup. Be aware that since there are no preservatives in home made versions, they need to be refrigerated right away and used up within 4 or 5 days. The ‘milk’ tends to separate, so give the bottle a good shake before each pour.

Click here to find out how I make plant-based milks at home. The instructions are for almond milk because I had almonds on hand (and because I wanted to end up with some almond flour to make my Greens & Feta Quiche with Almond Crust recipe!) but as mentioned earlier, you can substitute the almonds with oatmeal, dried unsweetened coconut, or other nuts/seeds and end up with interesting flours to use in your baking or other recipes.

Have fun experimenting!



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