Are plant-based milks any good, or are you better off just having a bowl of porridge? - Irish experts give their verdicts
With sales of alternatives rising steadily, Regina Lavelle asks the experts if there's any good reason to ditch the dairy
Say you drink coffee and you want to buy a creamer, so you go into a supermarket. There are two products on offer - one costs €1.05 for a litre. The other costs €1.71. You might say that's nuts. And if you did, you'd be right. That's how much an online supermarket charges for one litre of ordinary milk and one litre of unsweetened almond milk.
And where once even asking for skinny milk would invite snorts of derision, now there is an entire menu of non-animal 'milks' covering everything from soy to rice, cashew, almond, oat and coconut.
It's worth noting here that while these products are commonly thought of as milks, they are not allowed to describe themselves as such. EU rules prohibit it.
But each has its own pedigree and usage recommendations, with coconut milk best for curries, for example, and cashew milk suggested for making ice cream. And while their advocates once belonged to a fairly niche cohort, this is changing. According to figures published yesterday by Kantar, the retail experts, Irish sales of plant-based milks were up 40pc in January, when compared to the same period last year.
The figures reflect the growing popularity of the Veganuary campaign, which encourages people to adopt a plant-based diet for January. However, that is not the only factor - Kantar told the Irish Independent that a nine per cent increase in plant-based milk sales was recorded in the 52 weeks to the end of January this year. More generally, there is a slow but steady drift away from dairy, thanks to the growing numbers who identify as lactose intolerant and to the perceived health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet.
But are consumers doing the right thing by choosing plant-based milks?
"It's like a trend to be honest," says Professor Clare Corish, Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics and Programme Director of the MSc in the field at UCD. "There's no evidence for their use. There is a lot of work on sustainable eating and sustainable environment and we're probably better to eat more fruit and vegetables, but it seems to have grown arms and legs, and that somehow you shouldn't have dairy produce and should only have oat milks. But dairy products are a really great source of calcium and of bio-available calcium.
"This plant-milk stuff seems to be down to something in the ether because milk is a cheap and healthy food."
The increasing market for these products is particularly noteworthy for Ireland, traditionally one of the biggest consumers of milk. Research published by the Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada in 2016 showed that Ireland topped a table of European, North American, and Australian milk consumption with 125 litres per capita, only Finland came close at 120 litres. Last year's Behaviour and Attitudes survey showed that the average weekly household consumption of milk stands at 6.2 litres. And given the primacy of our agricultural industry here, any move away from milk feels significant. But while few question the health benefits of a plant-based diet, there are certain nutritional benefits to milk for which it is difficult, or at least complicated, to compensate for.
"The big one is calcium. The one people are less aware of is iodine. There's vitamin B12, vitamin B2, there's protein," says qualified dietician Sarah Keogh. "There's a whole package of nutrients which is why nut milks are not allowed to call themselves milk. They're a milk alternative or a squash."
Keogh says that these nutrients can usually be found in other foods, but a fully vegan diet can complicate substitutions.
"Vitamin B12 is found mainly in animal products, meat and dairy," she says. "If someone is going fully plant-based, it's usually recommended they take a supplement or eat foods fortified with B12. You need B12 for healthy blood - to make red blood cells, nerves and brain function. There can be an assumption that because these products are known as 'milks' that you're automatically getting calcium, but they're pretty low in calcium.
"If someone is going to use a plant-based product, whether it's soy or almond-based, the advice is to read the label carefully and make sure a calcium has been added to it. If you eat fish, then you can solve it with sardines - a tin of sardines has about the same amount of calcium as two glasses of milk, as long as you eat them with the bones.
"Iodine is needed for brain development, particularly during pregnancy. And really you only get it naturally in fish and Irish people tend not to be great fish eaters."
The way milk is processed in Ireland, iodine is added as part of that.
"You will get plenty of iodine in seaweed, in nori, dulsk, kelp. So if you're not getting it in any of those, you'll probably need a supplement," says Keogh.
For some, however, it is less about the science and more about the "clean eating" says Danielle Logue, a UCD PhD candidate in sports science who is studying these kinds of products in her research.
"You only have to go online to see everyone talking about clean eating - it's the new mantra. You have to eat pure and clean, and there is a sense that dairy does not conform. But dairy is nutrition rich."
Professor Corish points to the nutritional make-up of some of these milks, which contain a higher proportion of water as their primary ingredient.
"Almond milk is 2.3pc almond and the first ingredient is water. Oat milk is water, 10pc oats and then sunflower oil. You'd be better off having a bowl of porridge.
"There's also huge commercial interest. There's a lot of money being made by a lot of companies selling those products."
Keogh does say that most vegans are relatively well-educated on diet, and are pragmatic when it comes to addressing any dietary deficiencies, but there can be exceptions.
And these appear to arise where a vegan diet has been adopted for its perceived "natural" qualities. It is here that the circulation of questionable nutritional science may be responsible for some eyebrow-raising theories.
"Teenagers who want to go fully plant-based may have been reading blogs that aren't very reliable and there's a bit of resistance to taking the supplements," she says. "The latest is that that B12 is naturally in our soil, so if you don't wash your fruit and vegetables and you leave them with the muck on, you're getting your B12. The vast majority who are going fully vegan need to eat foods that B12 has been added to or they take a supplement.
"They're equating being on the vegan diet with being 'all natural' and that being vegan is part of a 'natural' diet. However, most people are well aware of what's required."
But in the absence of concrete scientific or nutritional evidence to support the diversion from milk, Professor Corish says that more research is needed.
"Nobody has looked into why people are so obsessed with this."
But UCD researcher Logue says that "anecdotally", the rise of plant-based milks could be a worrying fad. "It's a lot of young females online. There's a lot of access to misinformation."