A Guide to Plant-Based Milks/Alternative Milks

Rosie Martin, Registered Dietitian and Board Member at Plant-Based Health Professionals UK

When it comes to plant-based milks, the options are vastly expanding. Legumes, cereals, nuts, and seeds are now all being used to produce alternatives to cow’s milk. From humble soya to innovative potato, choosing a dairy-free milk in the expanding market can feel overwhelming. So which ones should you be putting in your basket, and which will provide the nourishment that you need without dairy? Here we discuss the main nutritional considerations and benefits of each of those most widely available in the UK, as well as look as some of the common concerns, to give you a little confidence when pondering the plant-milk aisle.

Soya milk

Soya milk is a popular choice amongst plant-milk consumers and is made by soaking, grinding and boiling soya beans. Soya milk is high in protein at 3.3g per 100ml, compared to 3.4g in dairy milk and contains good quantities of all nine of the essential protein building blocks called amino acids. Soya also contains beneficial isoflavones and has been found to have cholesterol-lowering properties, so it is a good choice for those with raised levels1. With its creamy texture, soya milk is a palatable option for many, but should be avoided by anyone with a soya allergy.


Almond milk

Almond milk is produced by soaking and blending almonds. It is a low-energy option that is also low in protein at 0.4g per 100ml, but this does vary across brands. Almond milk is a good source of heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fatty acids, as well as vitamin E which acts as an antioxidant in our bodies. With its mildly nutty flavour, it is a great option for use on cereals.


Oat milk

Oat milk is made in the same way as almond milk, producing a creamy and well-tolerated texture and flavour that can be used in drinks, over cereals and in baking. Oat milk is now the most popular vegan milk available2. Compared to almond and rice milk, oat milk tends to have a little more protein at 1.1g/100ml and may also contribute to improved cholesterol levels3. If you have coeliac disease, oat milk is one to avoid due to the potential contamination with gluten-containing cereals.

Oat milk and impact on blood sugar
There have been some concerns surrounding oat milk and its impact on raising blood sugar levels. Oats contain carbohydrates that are broken down into sugars, and compared to some other plant-based milks, oat milk is higher in these carbohydrates. However, it is important to recognise that blood sugar changes are a normal part of the digestive process, and oat milk is often consumed as part of a meal that contains other components, such as fibre and protein (for example nuts, seeds, fruit), which results in a lower overall change in blood sugars. Oat milk is also rich in unsaturated fatty acids and contains a variety of bioactive components as well as dietary fibre, which supports an overall reduction in disease4.


Coconut milk

Coconut milk that is created for drinking is made by boiling grated coconut in water and straining the liquid. Due to this processing method, it is generally far lower in fat than coconut milk produced for cooking, at only 0.9g of fat per 100 ml compared to 18.1g. Coconut milk for drinking is low in protein but can add flavour and sweetness to hot drinks and cereals.


Rice milk

Rice milk is made by boiling and pressing rice and straining the liquid. Rice milk has a sweeter taste with a higher carbohydrate content compared to other plant milks. It is low in protein and other nutrients but can be considered a decent alternative for those with nut or soya allergies.


Hemp milk

Made by blending hemp seeds with water, hemp milk is also low in protein but does provide the essential polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Hemp milk is often used in cereals, cooking and baking.


Pea milk

Pea milk most commonly uses yellow split peas, with the pea protein blended with water to produce the milk. Pea milk provides a little more protein than other plant milks at around 2.4g per 100ml.


Hazelnut milk

Hazelnut milk is produced from roasted hazelnuts that are soaked and blended with water. The result is a sweet, thick, and rich fluid that can be enjoyed in smoothies, over cereal and in indulgent coffees and hot chocolates.


Cashew milk

Cashew milk is another creamy milk made by soaking, blending and straining cashews. Like almond milk, it is a low-energy source of vitamin E but it is also low in protein and fibre. Cashew milk has a subtle nutty flavour and can be a good option for use in cooking, baking and to add to your coffee.


Potato milk

Potato milk is the new plant-milk kid on the block. It is high in fibre and great for those with allergies as it is free from lactose, milk, soya, gluten, and nuts. Luckily the processing leaves the potato flavour behind, resulting in a neutral, creamy milk with a subtle sweetness.

Which plant milks should we buy?

When choosing your plant-milks, opt for ones that are unsweetened to avoid unnecessary added sugar. It is also important to meet your calcium requirements when moving to a plant-based diet, and fortified plant-milks can be a significant contributor. Fortified milks also often come with added vitamin D and B12 too.  Do note that non-organic plant milks are usually not fortified in the UK.

As cow’s milk is regularly promoted for protein, plant-milks (except for soya), are often condemned for their lower protein content. Milk is not a significant contributor to protein in a healthy, balanced diet, however5. This means that although additional sources of plant-based protein can be useful for plant-based athletes or those who are unwell, the general population do not need to rely on milk alternatives, due to the abundance of protein in foods such as tofu, beans, pulses, and peas.

When it comes to children’s nutrition, due to their protein content, soya and pea are more suitable options. You can find out more about plant-based nutrition for children here: https://plantbasedhealthprofessionals.com/kids.

An often forgotten nutrient to consider on a dairy-free diet is iodine. Dairy is a large contributor to iodine intake in the UK population, however it is not a natural source as it is derived from cow’s feed supplementation and cleaning solutions used on teats and machinery. Without this source however, it is important for people on a plant-based or vegan diet to ensure sufficient iodine, with 140µg recommended daily. Some brands of plant-based milks are starting to fortify their drinks with iodine which can be a useful source if not directly supplemented in the diet.

Are plant-based milks better for the environment?

Plant-milks have been criticised for a variety of environmental factors; for example, the quantity of water required to grow almonds. Despite this criticism, plant-milks have a significantly lower overall environmental impact than cow’s milk. All plant-based milk alternatives, including almond milk, use less land and water and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cow’s milk, and they are therefore always a better choice for the environment6.


Are plant-based drinks considered ultra-processed?

Concerns have been raised around the potential categorisation of plant-based drinks as ultra-processed foods. Although for some products, processing involves the addition of free sugars, fat and salt that may make them less beneficial to health7, some level of processing can be beneficial, producing a nutrient profile that supports the health of specific population groups. In the case of plant-based drinks, the majority of non-organic varieties are fortified with vitamin D, B2 (riboflavin), B12 and calcium which are valuable nutrients which are often lacking in UK diets8. Fortified plant-based drinks typically contain calcium at similar levels to cow’s milk (120mg/100ml). It is therefore important to consider the role of food in the overall diet, rather than solely on the level of processing9,10.

There are some concerns around the inclusion of rapeseed oils and emulsifiers that are often added to plant-based milks. These are added to improve their texture and palatability. Oils are usually only present in small amounts, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are detrimental to health. Rapeseed oil is low in saturated fats, rich in unsaturated fats, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than most other oils. The emulsifiers found in most plant milks such as gellan gum are broadly considered safe, however, if you have conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), you might wish to avoid these as they may aggravate symptoms.

As you can see, each plant milk has its own unique nutritional profile. When measuring up the nutritional content in comparison to cow’s milk, soya takes first place due to its protein content, but is this one the best? As most of us can get all the nutrition we need from the foods we choose in our diet, I would argue that the best plant milk is the one you enjoy most. And with all the science showing us that plant diversity is key, why choose just one?

You can also make your own plant milk from easily-accessible ingredients such as soya beans.


  1. Michelfelder AJ. Soy: a complete source of protein. Am Fam Physician. 2009 Jan 1;79(1):43-7. PMID: 19145965.
  2. https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/the-cream-of-the-vegan-milk-crop-sales-of-oat-milk-overtake-almond-in-the-uk
  3. Onning G, Wallmark A, Persson M, Akesson B, Elmståhl S, Oste R. Consumption of oat milk for 5 weeks lowers serum cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in free-living men with moderate hypercholesterolemia. Ann Nutr Metab. 1999;43(5):301-9. doi: 10.1159/000012798
  4. Yu, Y., Li, X., Zhang, J., Li, X., Wang, J., & Sun, B. (2023). Oat milk analogue versus traditional milk: Comprehensive evaluation of scientific evidence for processing techniques and health effects. Food chemistry: X19, 100859. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fochx.2023.100859
  5. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-9-to-11-2016-to-2017-and-2018-to-2019
  6. https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impact-milks
  7. Monteiro C, et al. A new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing. Cadernos de saude publica / Ministerio da Saude, Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz, Escola Nacional de Saude Publica. 2010;26(11), pp.2039–2049.
  8. PHE, FSA, MRC. Official Statistics: NDNS results from years 9 and 11 (combined) of the rolling programme 2016-2017 & 2018-2019. Gov.UK. Dec 11, 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-9-to-11-2016-to-2017-and-2018-to-2019. Accessed April 30, 2022
  9. British Dietetic Association (BDA) Position Statement: Processed Food: https://www.bda.uk.com/uploads/assets/06661eb4-b635-44a7-b3a1f753525c8f99/53f7356a-51eb-42c9-b1fbc6680230fbf3/Processed-Food-Position-Statement-FINAL-approved.pdf. Published 2020. Accessed April 30, 2022.
  10. Craig WJ, Messina V, Rowland I, Frankowska A, Bradbury J, Smetana S, Medici E. Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives Contribute to a Healthy and Sustainable Diet. Nutrients. 2023; 15(15):3393. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15153393