Plant-Based Beverages: Properties, Types, and Proper Use

Plant-Based Beverages: Properties, Types, and Proper Use

Rice milk, soy milk, coconut milk, coconut mix, oat and almond mix, mix with added calcium, minerals, vitamins, and so on.

Plant-based beverages (the correct term is plant-based beverage and not milk) have forcefully entered the supermarket shelves in recent years, and the growth in variety and flavors is unstoppable. In continuity with the previous article (burgers and plant-based products), let's try to clarify the nutritional characteristics, quality, and proper use.

I would start with the most banal question: why use them and how can they be incorporated into daily nutrition?

They are normally used in the morning for breakfast, as a "healthy" alternative to cow's milk, both by those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins, and by those who simply choose them for taste or those following a vegan or vegetarian diet. The common denominator is the desire to maintain a "classic breakfast" with the appropriate milk substitute.

In reality, among the many options available (oat, coconut, rice, soy, various mixes, etc.), the only beverage that most closely resembles the composition of cow's milk is natural soy milk.

Partially skimmed cow's milk has the following nutritional values per 100 ml: 46 kcal | carbohydrates 4.8 g of which sugars 4.8 g | proteins 3.31 g | fats 0.9 g | calcium 116 mg; natural soy milk (without added sugars): about 30-40 kcal | carbohydrates 1.7 g of which sugars 0.8 g | proteins 3.5 g | fats 2 g of which saturated 0.3.

Proteins are well represented, albeit qualitatively different (animal and plant), in both beverages. The rest of the beverages, unless enriched, have a low or negligible protein content (rice/almond beverages 0.3-0.40 g/100ml; oat/coconut beverages 0.2-0.1 g/100ml), so nutritionally they are far from the protein intake of milk or yogurt. Another advantage of soy milk is the presence of isoflavones, phytonutrients with anticancer properties. On the other hand, the phytic acid present in it is a substance that makes it difficult for the body to absorb and digest vitamins and minerals.

From a caloric point of view, they are all similar, while the contribution of sugars is much more important in plant-based beverages: rice milk is the richest in simple sugars, therefore not suitable for those following a controlled calorie diet. It should also be avoided in cases of obesity and diabetes.

In general, it is always advisable to read the list of ingredients and avoid all plant-based beverages that have added sugars, to avoid excess calories. The wording "no added sugars" on the packaging is becoming more and more frequent and generally very visible.

In case of intense physical activity, having breakfast with a cup of oat beverage (or similar), toast with organic natural jam, coffee and fruit or citrus juice, can be very useful both to satisfy the right energy intake and to avoid milk and dairy products that can cause abdominal bloating or digestion difficulties. In this perspective, sweeter plant-based beverages can be used as an excellent carbohydrate replenishment after intense physical activity.

The fat content varies from 0.8 g/100ml of rice beverage to 1.5 g/100 ml of almond beverage and is also conditioned by the addition of vegetable oils (sunflower, rice): therefore, these are beneficial monounsaturated fatty acids (reduction of LDL cholesterol). While coconut, and therefore its beverage, mainly contains saturated fats.

On the market, plant-based beverages with added vitamins (D, B, E), calcium, potassium, and/or fiber, useful in case of low intake with daily nutrition, have become widespread. Given the great variety, it would be advisable to choose natural ones, without colorants and preservatives, even better if organic (oat, rice).

Plant-based beverages suitable for celiacs, gluten-free, are normally indicated on the packaging, and all are naturally lactose-free.

Nutritionist Concetta Mauriello

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