How to distinguish a healthy plant drink from those best to avoid

It hasn't been long since the most extravagant thing one could do when ordering a coffee was to insist that the milk had to be skimmed, but it seems that it would have been centuries. So much has changed the landscape that it doesn't sound strange to opt for an alternative to cow's milk that has been produced from raw material. A plethora of products designed to replace millennial food draw our attention from the supermarket lines, but what do we know about its nutritional qualities?

To begin to clarify the matter, you must distinguish between five groups of plants. The legumes are obtained from soy, peanut or lupin drinks. From cereals are produced rice, pellet, oats, corn... and pseudocereals are taken from quinoa, amaranth or teff. From the nuts or some fruits come the alternatives of almonds, Macadamia nuts, coconut and pistachio and finally from the seeds are those of hemp, sesame, sunflower pipes... In that lot is also our chufa horchata or sikhye, a famous drink in South Korea based on rice, malt extract and sugar.

The choice (if you want, or need, do without a food as complete as cow's milk) is not complicated in terms of taste and texture. The soy drink is the most milk-like, the one that best withstands the comparison if it is added to a coffee or used to make a bechamel, while the almond drink, for example, does not emulsify the same if you want to prepare a cappuccino. In terms of taste, rice and oats are tolerated quite well because they are very sweet, while the canaryseed or espelta, on the other hand, has a flavor reminiscent of the herb. Much more complex is the field of nutritional quality of each alternative, but it is worth taking a good time to read the nutritional sheet in search of the keys that an important technician in dietetics specialized in vegetarian and vegan nutrition, to choose the best substitute for milk.

The most sugar is in the city?

Even as these products are popularly known as vegetable milks, Spanish law prohibits calling milk to any beverage that does not come from the female of a mammal. That doesn't mean manufacturers can't use cow fluid as a reference when designing their alternative recipes. In fact, that's what they do, and that shows in free sugar levels, which point to between 4 and 4.6 grams containing 100 milliliters of cow's milk. "If you buy a soy drink with between 2 and 4 grams added per 100 milliliters, and if, at the same time, it is enriched with other interesting nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12 or vitamin D, at the nutritional level it is like having a glass of cow's milk," argues Muñoz. Ideally "is that they go enriched and sugar-free, but commercially it is not the most common"

Part chapter are the options sold as soy smoothies with flavors. "If that drink is enriched but contains more than 3 or 4 grams of sugar for every 100 milliliters it's also not worth it It's what happens with sugary soy drinks flavored with vanilla, chocolate... which can carry 8 and up to 10 grams of sugar. Finally, if the soy drink carries sugar and, on top of it, it is not enriched, it must be discarded from the shopping basket".

In terms of cereal drinks, Muñoz recommends paying close attention to the legend of "no added sugar", and not because it has to be put in the shopping basket without hesitation for a moment. In fact, it warns that it can lead to weight errors in the final sum of daily calories and sugars. "Cereals, like rice and oats, already have enough sugar naturally, and that has to be taken into account because sometimes we stick with the big message and we don't read the fine print of the nutritional information," he says. "Rice is a complex carbohydrate, it carries starches that are released as simple sugars when crushed. The rice drink provides between 5 and 7 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters, and that's without adding sugar. Oats stays about 5 to 6 grams. This should be taken into account by people with insulin resistance or diabetes, cardiovascular problems, fatty liver... these types of patients should not consume these drinks or, in general, plant drinks with more than 3 or 4 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters", concludes Muñoz.

Are products enriched with calcium and vitamins worth it?

Part of the basis that many plant drinks are marketed to remove clientele from cow's milk, it is logical to infer that they have to contribute, at most, the same as that. And if nature doesn't give it, that's what scientists are for and their lab strategies to enrich the product, which usually done with calcium and vitamin D. "On average, 100 milliliters of cow's milk contain 120 milligrams of calcium, which is what is normally added to plant drinks. Some brands put even more, reaching between 140 and 160 milligrams," explains Muñoz.

And it seems that there is no need to worry about whether calcium powder is added is worse than that of cow's milk because they assimilate the same. "A study was done in postmenopausal Australian women with osteopenia, a bone problem related to muscle density. After comparing the degree of absorption of calcium from cow's milk and calcium carbonate from the enriched soy a bead, they saw that in both cases it was the same: 30%".

Vitamin D is another commonly added nutrient, not with a good use of calcium. "I always recommend that if you take a plant drink bring vitamin D added because promotes the metabolization of that calcium, not only at the intestinal level, but intraoseous," says Muñoz . That you're a vegan-in-house? Then check where that vitamin comes from. "Normally, plant-based vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is added, but some brands use vitamin D3 of animal origin (cholecalciferol)".

Many brands advertise that they have added vitamin B12 to their product, which is only found in foods of animal origin, so vegans should always supplement it. "The contribution will always be to assimilate to cow's milk: 15% of the national reference value per 100 milliliters. It may seem insufficient, but a whole glass of plant drink enriched with vitamin B12 (about 250 milliliters) already adds almost half of the vitamin B12 intake daily recommended," says Muñoz.

The most important protein-preserving beverages are

There are big differences in the protein section. "Nuts lose protein in the filtering process to separate the solid part from the liquid. Some of the fiber is also lost. In soybeans, however, the protein does pierce the mesh that separates the solid perch from the liquid. If we want it as a substitute for milk, soy is always going to be the best alternative.

To this point, there is only one doubt left, the last but not the least important: how do you make plant-like drinks look so much like milk and for some to call it the same? The key is additives, some of which are clearly expendable.

Animal milk already comes white, liquid, semi-dense and emulsified, in the glass it looks the same as freshly milked. Plant drinks, on the other hand, are a human invention and their molecules must be emulsified so that they look white and homogeneous in the glass. "Some brands add sunflower oil for that, but I don't see it necessary, especially if it's not high oleic or the amount is excessive." Another common addition is natural flavorings. "The most common is the essence of vanilla. This is how you get that sweet touch of cow's milk, which is nothing but the taste of lactose."