Food for Thought: Plant-Based Drinks

In recent years, we have become accustomed to seeing a plethora of plant-based drinks in our supermarkets, our coffee shops and even in our own fridges at home. But what role, if any, do these dairy-alternatives have in the Irish diet?

Thirty years ago we drank milk. Twenty years ago skimmed and semi-skimmed milks were coming onto the market. Ten years ago some of us knew of soya milk but it wasn’t very common. Present day Ireland and we’re loving our almond cappuccinos, our coconut smoothies and our cashew cream. How things have changed. But does this have an impact on our health and nutrition status? We grew up hearing that milk would make us “big and strong”. Does that still stand for plant-based drinks?

  • Many soya and other plant-based drinks, with the exception of organic variants, are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 making them comparable to cow’s milk in terms of nutritional quality. Very few plant-based drinks are fortified with iodine which is naturally present in cow’s milk. Iodine is particularly important in pregnancy for brain development of the growing foetus.
  • Generally speaking, plant-based drinks have energy levels that are similar to semi-skimmed milk, i.e. approx. 40kcal/100ml. Unsweetened almond milk has the lowest calorie content with 13kcal/100ml.
  • Plant-based milks tend to be low in fat and the fats that are present are typically unsaturated fats, i.e. the healthier type of fat. Skimmed milk is the lowest fat option of all dairy and non-dairy milks with 0.3g/100ml.
  • With the exception of soya drinks, plant-based drinks such as coconut, almond and rice milk tend to have lower amounts of protein than cow’s milk. This is worth noting for growing children and teens who rely on protein for growth and development and for the elderly who are at risk of malnutrition and who tend to have lower protein intakes.
  • Flavoured soya and other plant-based drinks have sugar levels that are comparable to flavoured cow’s milk.
  • In general, plant-based diets or a flexitarian approach to eating supports better health for the Irish population by helping to reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes – three health issues that are engulfing the country. A plant-based or flexitarian diet does not necessarily mean excluding all animal foods from the diet. Instead, these dietary approaches focus on including more plant-based foods in the diet, consequently reducing the volume of animal foods consumed. Plant-based foods include plant-based drinks, beans, lentils, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, soya, cereals and wholegrains.

    Dietary guidelines the world over are now advocating less meat and more plants. Not only for the health of the people but for the health and the sustainability of our planet too. However, what is most important is that you do what’s best for you, what makes you feel happiest and healthiest.

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