Kirsten Francis, a Hyderabad-based journalist, remembers how throughout her childhood she hated milk, because every time she had it, she would throw up. At the age of 32, she has now understood that her body was merely signalling to her that it was lactose intolerant.
Kirsten endured milk like many other kids who’re forced to gulp it down because it is considered the secret of good health. A glass of milk was, more often than not, a non-negotiable part of a child’s diet.
Today, however, the scenario is different. More people are becoming aware of the foods they consume. And plant-based food, especially plant-based milk, or non-dairy milk, has been gaining popularity in the recent past. Dairy products are slowly and steadily being replaced by a multitude of plant-based products originating from soy, almonds, oats, cashew, rice, etc. In fact, with walnut, hazelnut and even hemp milk available today, the consumer is surely spoilt for choice!
Kunal Mutha, founder of Only Earth, a plant-based beverage brand, believes plant-based nutrition is here to stay. “It is much more than just a change in diet and lifestyle. With a profusion of information available online, veganism has become a viable choice among conscious consumers,” he says.
Several reasons can be cited for the growing popularity of plant-based milk, including ethical and environmental concerns as well as health reasons. Additionally, plant-based products rank higher on sustainability, thanks to lower consumption of energy, land and water.
“People have begun realising the importance of going environment-friendly after learning that plant-based products have a much lower carbon footprint,” explains Kunal.
He also points out how people have now recognised lactose intolerance, as in the case of Kirsten Francis, and are much more aware of how plant-based milk can help them address that issue. “Several skin experts have linked acne to consumption of dairy products. Plant-based milk has many other health benefits that appeal to the users too,” he adds.
In fact, studies have shown that at least 60% of Indians are lactose intolerant, making the switch to plant-based alternatives a natural choice. Moreover, the now almost common practice of injecting cows with antibiotics and hormones to increase milk yield has added to the dangers to health that milk could pose.
According to Ryan Fernando, India’s leading sports nutritionist, plant-based milk is ideal for those who follow a vegan diet. “It provides relief from gastric disturbances and is perfect for people with a slow digestive system. Vegan milks are free of any hormone and therefore, are less cancer-inducing than dairy milk,” he adds.
A range of choices and benefits
Most plant-based milk options contain zero cholesterol and have very low-fat content. According to Radhika Datt and Akshatha Satish of Goodmylk, the fat content naturally present in plant-based milk is the essential unsaturated fats that promote cardiovascular health. “Plant-based products have a lower glycaemic index and therefore the carbs in them can be digested, absorbed and metabolized at a slow rate” they explain. “Further, these products are usually easy to digest, making it a great option for those who are lactose intolerant.”
Kunal also points out the benefits of non-dairy options, given that they have relatively lower saturated fat and cholesterol. “They retain proteins, carbohydrates, fibre, calcium, potassium, sodium and vitamins,” Kunal says, although he cautions that the actual health benefits need to be mapped to an individual’s body type and needs.
As per Ryan, plant-based milks have a healthy combination of mono and polyunsaturated fats. “Oat milk, for instance, is nearly as calorie-dense as cow milk while the potassium content of pea protein milk is higher than that of cow milk,” he states. “However, a point to note is that heating almond or other plant-based milks requires care as they do not do as well when heated, as the proteins in the milks can change form when heated too high,” he warns.
Additionally, each variant of plant-based milk has its own unique qualities and benefits. For instance, while soy milk is high in protein and cashew milk is rich in fibre, vitamins and healthy fats, coconut milk is believed to help improve the body’s immune system.
Rohan Mirchandani, co-founder and CEO of Epigamia, a brand that started off on plant-based yoghurt and is slowly extending into health food, shares some thoughts on the various plant-based milk options.
“Almond milk, which is one of the most popular variants, is low in calories, fat, and carbs. Oat milk, a recent trend, is a dairy-free, nut-free and soy-free option, and so it’s a good choice for people with specific allergies,” he elaborates. “Coconut milk has a pleasant flavour and is an excellent alternative if you have a tree nut allergy. Rice milk, though it has lower calcium and protein counts, is often chosen because of its sweet taste and is perfect for baking or breakfast recipes.”
Rohan points out that there are many other options available in the market today, while advising consumers to research and consult their physicians before picking up the right plant-based alternative based on their requirements.
It’s a great idea for those seeking a switch to plant-based milk to start with small quantities as experiments to see what works best.
Tasty and healthy too!
All said and done, it’s commonly believed that these alternatives are not tasty enough for your morning cuppa. However, with innovations, the plant-based industry is moving rapidly towards ensuring zero compromise for consumers. “We are doing our best to give consumers all options they need to live the healthiest life, without compromising on taste,” says Rohan.
Radhika and Akshatha too strongly believe that taste and comfort are key. “There is no right answer — maybe you will like cashew-oat milk in your coffee but prefer your chai with something else. As better options become available, we can shed our preconceived notions about food and redefine it to work for us as well as the world around us,” they conclude.