Plant-Based Beverages in a Nutshell

What are plant-based beverages?

Also known as “plant-based milk” or “plant milk,” plant-based beverages are manufactured by extracting plant material, such as seeds or grain, in water. They are often used as replacements for dairy milk. However, from the nutritive perspective, dairy milk and plant-based beverages are different types of food.

Plant-based beverages:

  • Can be highly processed foods;
  • Often have added synthetic vitamins and minerals, similar to fortified milk;
  • Vary widely in their nutritional composition;
  • Often have added preservatives and gums, including the inflammatory emulsifier, carrageenan;
  • The majority of plant-based beverages are conventional, not organic.

Common types of plant-based beverages include: soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, cashew milk, flax milk, rice milk, and oat milk.

The need for plant-based options: allergies, sensitivities, and other dietary needs

For many individuals, there are medical or lifestyle reasons for choosing plant-based beverages. Plant-based beverages come as a welcome alternative for those who cannot tolerate or choose not to consume cow’s milk.

A sizable minority of Americans have food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances to foods. Plant-based alternative foods allow people whose bodies do not tolerate dairy to continue mainstream eating habits.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2016 found that “about 15% of U.S. adults say they have severe, moderate or mild allergies to at least one kind of food.” That constitutes approximately 253 million adults in the U.S. with allergies. Pew’s research also notes that “[a]nother 17% of adults have food intolerances, but no food allergies.”[i]

In the case of sensitivities, individuals may find they react to milk but not to other dairy products due to the individual qualities of each food. For example, many cheeses have lower lactose than liquid milk.

A true milk allergy differs in symptoms and treatment from both milk protein intolerance and lactose intolerance—though in all cases, removal of milk from the diet is typically recommended.

The symptoms of allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances can vary so it is best to consult with a medical professional about your dietary concerns to get an accurate diagnosis.

Plant-based beverage sales and marketing

Sales of plant-based beverages have skyrocketed since 2010. By 2016, that number had increased substantially; more than one-third of U.S. households had purchased these products, totaling $1.5 billion in sales that year.

Large food manufacturers have chosen to invest in expensive marketing campaigns, many of which are designed to target people born between the 1980s and the early 2000s. Their persistent advertising has proven effective, as millennials and Generation Z comprise the largest segment of consumers choosing plant-based beverages.[ii] This marketing may specifically appeal to these generations based on the higher reported level of allergies and food sensitivities.[iii] Younger generations are also more likely to identify as mostly vegan or vegetarian than previous generations.[iv]

The effect of plant-based beverages on the milk market

As plant-based beverages have grown in popularity, sales of cow’s milk have declined.

The explosion of the plant-based beverage market has caused great hardship for traditional small-scale dairy and grain farmers. Most of these soy and grain-based beverages are conventional and made with cheap, imported materials. Even those beverages that are labeled as organic might be affected by organic import fraud.

Family-scale organic dairies are also suffering as plant-based beverage sales soar. Marketing to consumers pushes plant-based beverages as the “healthier” option with no discussion of the many troubling additives–or lack of nutritional substance–found in these products.

Environmental impacts of milk and its alternatives

There has been a lot of debate over which “milks,” dairy or plant-based, are better for the environment.

It is well-established that livestock contribute to environmental degradation through the destruction of native habitat and greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. The livestock sector affects the natural resources that impact food security on a global scale. Industrial production of cow’s milk is a significant contributor to concerns of localized pollution, climate change, and degradation of water resources.

How a food is produced has the most influence on its environmental impact. This means there are environmental considerations for plant-based beverages as well.

Conventional soy is also implicated in deforestation and destruction of habitat to a great degree. Though soybeans are used in the production of plant-based beverages, about 70% of the soybeans grown in the U.S. and approximately 90% of the soy grown globally are used for animal feed.

For example, some plants, such as almonds, require copious amounts of water to cultivate. Almond farmers risk depleting this critical resource in the most arid parts of California, where the majority of the world’s almonds are grown.

Nutritional and ingredient profiles of plant-based beverages

For a detailed breakdown of nutritional profiles of plant-based beverages, check out Cornucopia’s report, Pouring” Over Plant-Based Beverages: A Consumer’s Guide to Identifying the Best Non-Milk Alternatives.

Brands and formulas vary widely among the plant-based beverage market. For a more detailed breakdown of popular brands–and how they compare to the nutrition in cow’s milk–Cornucopia’s Plant Beverage Report goes into further detail.

Common ingredients found in plant-based beverages

This is a list of common ingredients found in many plant-based beverage brands:

  • Tricalcium phosphate
  • Dipotassium phosphate
  • Potassium citrate (potassium salt of citric acid)
  • Calcium carbonate
  • Vitamin E acetate
  • High oleic sunflower oil
  • Zinc oxide
  • Folic acid
  • B-12
  • Riboflavin (B2)
  • Vitamin A palmitate
  • Ergocalciferol (D2)
  • Salt/ Sea Salt
  • D-alpha tocerpherol (vitamin E)
  • Magnesium Phosphate
  • Acacia
  • Xantham Gum
  • Guar Gum
  • Locust Bean gum
  • Sunflower Lecithin
  • Soy Lecithin
  • Tapioca Starch
  • Natural Flavors
  • Natural Colors
  • Sugar (evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, or cane syrup)
  • Coconut cream
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
  • Pea protein
  • Rice protein

Nutritional hazards of plant-based beverages

Plant-based beverages rarely contain just plant components mixed with water. Instead, numerous additives, including synthetic vitamins, sweeteners, and thickeners, are added to the beverages. Many of these additives improve the “mouthfeel” or taste of the beverage, making it more palatable to consumers. Some of these additives, including carrageenan, are associated with digestive inflammation (Cornucopia’s report on carrageenan notes its links to inflammation, cancer, and even diabetes).

Vitamin fortification

Synthetic vitamins are also commonly added to other foods, including dairy milk. For example, vitamin A is added back into non-fat, low-fat, and reduced fat milk because processing to remove fat also removes vitamin A. The history of vitamin fortification of foods is based on apparent health needs of different populations and the fact that processing often removes vitamins that would otherwise naturally be present in the foods.

While vitamin fortification is generally seen as a good thing by regulators, such fortification is often done with synthetic vitamins. These vitamins may not be as bioavailable or may even be in the wrong form for some individuals. As always, it’s important to discuss your individual health needs with medical professionals and check nutrition panels for more information about individual products.

Added sugars and total sugars

Plant-based beverages may contain significant amounts of added sugar. Some have a sugar content comparable to that of sugar-sweetened soft drinks even though they are marketed as “healthy.” Organic brands may also contain added sugar, although their sugars come from certified organic, non-GMO sources. To cut back on sugar, select “original” or “plain” flavors rather than sweetened options.

Emulsifiers and gums

Ingredients such as guar gum, acacia, xanthan gum, or soy lecithin often are added to products to enhance palatability and give plant-based beverages a creamier, velvety mouthfeel. For example, soy lecithin is a common ingredient in processed foods, including some soy beverages.  Unless organic, lecithin is extracted from soybeans using harsh chemical solvents, such as hexane (see Cornucopia’s report, Behind the Bean, for more information on hexane extraction).

Natural flavors

The technical difference between a “natural flavor” and an “artificial flavor” is that the former must be derived from a real food at some point. Natural flavors are still likely to have been manufactured in a laboratory.

Natural flavors in organic food are held to stricter standards than those in conventional foods. While natural flavors processed with synthetic solvents, such as propane and hexane, are commonly used in conventional foods, they are prohibited in organic foods (see Cornucopia’s Snack Bars Report, Raising the Bar, for more information).

Organic plant-based beverages

Organic plant-based beverages are the better choice compared to their conventional counterparts. Conven­tional producers use an array of harmful synthetic pesti­cides and fertilizers. Residues can persist in plant-based beverages. Because organic regulations prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and highly toxic pesticides, organ­ic producers rely on farming techniques such as growing cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, smothering forage crops to control weeds, and rotating crops to break pest and disease cycles.

All USDA certi­fied organic plant-based beverages are also non-GMO. However, non-GMO products that are not certified organic are made with conventional ingredients–meaning the ingredients are likely grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

By law, certified organic processed foods contain only those additives that have undergone sig­nificant review and meet criteria for “essentiality” and standards for human and environmental health. In con­trast, the FDA regulates conventional food additives and processing aids without questioning their essentiality or environmental impact.

Cornucopia’s plant-based beverage guide highlights these issues. With notably few organic options in the marketplace, consumers can influence brands by asking them to produce organic products or by voting with their purchasing power.

Are plant-based beverages a true milk alternative?

Soy milk is the closest, nutritionally, to cow’s milk, and many plant-based beverages add vitamins and minerals to mimic the nutritional composition of cow’s milk. However, close examination of the nutritional differences shows that, in general, cow’s milk and plant-based beverages are different kinds of foods. Being different means that they are not one-for-one replacements despite being marketed as such.

There is no need to drink milk to have a well-balanced diet. Still, specific care does need to be taken for individuals to get their nutritional needs met. This means recognizing that plant-based beverages are not straight nutritional replacements for cow’s milk.

If interested in maintaining high-quality dairy in you or your loved one’s diets, you can consult Cornucopia’s Organic Dairy Report and Scorecard to find reputable organic brands that produce nutrient-dense milk and dairy products derived from cows that have been raised with high organic integrity.

How to choose the best plant-based beverage options for you and your loved ones

Cornucopia recommends consumers consult with their healthcare professionals, including nutritionists, whenever there are concerns about an individual’s dietary needs. However, in general it is a good idea to avoid highly processed foods that contain toxic chemicals, additives with poor safety testing, and excessive added sugars.

  1. Buy certified organic products. When you see the USDA organic seal, it indicates that the plant-based beverage was produced with a minimum of 95% organic ingredients by weight (the remaining 5% must be comprised of ingredients not available organically that haave been reviewed for their safety, like salt). The organic label includes specific benefits and strict standards (it is the only label that speaks to how something is produced that is regulated by the federal government).
  2. Support companies that exclusively manufacture USDA certified organic products. These companies are dedicated to the values that accompany the organic label. Companies that sell only some organic products and many non-organic offerings are likely exploiting the price premium they can get for using the organic seal, rather than fully committing to support the ethos behind the organic food and farming movement.
  3. Choose beverages with no added sweeteners or those with low levels of sweeteners. Added sugar is associated with many health risks. Consumers can choose “plain” or “unsweetened” versions to avoid added sugars (though it’s still important to check nutrition labels).
  4. Choose beverages without added flavors and colors. Flavors and colors can be added to plant-based beverages to improve the taste and appearance of the products.
  5. Choose beverages without non-organic emulsifiers and gums, including carrageenan. Carrageenan is a highly processed seaweed extract that food manufacturers add to many processed foods. Ingestion of carrageenan carries documented health risks (see Cornucopia’s Carrageenan Report for more information).
  6. Choose brands without vegetable oils. Vegetable oils are usually conventional (unless certified organic) and will likely contain GMOs and traces of pesticide residue. In addition, many vegetable oil additives contribute to an imbalanced level of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet.
  7. Choose brands that disclose the percentage of the plant-based content and have the fewest ingredients. Fewer ingredients often indicates a product with less processing.

[i] Pew Research. December 1, 2016. “Public views about Americans’ eating habits.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/12/01/public-views-about-americans-eating-habits/

[ii] Jim Cornall. 2018. “Dairy should learn from dairy alternative, Rabobank report says.” Dairy Reporter, May 29, 2018. https://www.dairyreporter.com/Article/2018/05/29/Dairy-should-learn-from-dairy-alternatives-Rabobank-report-says

[iii] Jamie Ballard. 2018. “Millennials most likely to report having food allergies.” YouGov, October 24. https://today.yougov.com/topics/food/articles-reports/2018/10/24/food-allergies-most-common

[iv] Pew Research. December 1, 2016. “Public views about Americans’ eating habits.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/12/01/public-views-about-americans-eating-habits/