Going to the grocery store to “get milk,” is not always what it used to mean.  Open up the refrigerator in many homes, and the “milk” might instead be a nondairy milk alternative. From soymilk, almond, coconut, rice, cashew, oat, hemp, quinoa, or hazelnut, just to name a few, cow’s milk has competition.

Traditional cow’s milk still dominates the milk market, but research shows that U.S. nondairy milk sales are growing causing cow’s milk sales to sag.  Nondairy milk alternatives have gained popularity amongst consumers. But are nondairy milk alternatives as healthy for us as cow’s milk and why are consumers dropping dairy milk for plant-based alternative milks anyway?

Reasons for the switch to nondairy milk alternatives

The consumer consumption switch on buying more nondairy milk alternatives is being fueled for several reasons:

  • People with a milk allergy have a safe alternative to cow’s milk
  • People with lactose intolerance – however dairy milk manufacturers make some varieties of cow’s milk with the lactose already broken down
  • People who are vegans and consume no animal products
  • People who have health concerns over consuming dairy milk believing it is fattening or unhealthy
  • The perception by the public that nondairy milk alternatives are healthier than dairy milk
  • Some consumers who question modern milk production practices

How does the nutritional profile of cow’s milk compare to plant-based milks?

This is where it is very important for consumer’s to read the nutrition facts label on all types of nondairy milk alternatives.  While it’s tempting to follow the trend of drinking plant-based milk alternatives, before deserting cow’s milk, know the nutritional differences between them.

Let’s be clear, cow’s milk is still the gold standard with a high nutritional profile for several reasons:

  • Cow’s milk has many healthy nutrients making it a very nutritious food. One cup of milk naturally contains 8 grams protein, 300 milligrams of bone-building calcium, the B vitamins of niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B 12, and 400 milligrams of potassium and is fortified with vitamins A and D.  Cow’s milk is one of our best few food sources of vitamin D.   These nutrients are consistent in all dairy products.  The only change among fluid cow’s milk is the amount of fat as it can vary from non-fat, low-fat, and full-fat milk.
  • Real milk contributes essential nutrients to the diet at all ages, especially in infancy and childhood when bones are growing and developing.
  • Replacing real milk with nondairy milk alternatives is not supported by adequate scientific evidence, and has no proven benefits for the general healthy population.
  • Kids should not drink plant-based alternatives in place of real milk unless there is a specific indication to do so, provided by a pediatrician (such as milk allergy or lactose intolerance).
  • In regards to calcium, real milk remains the more advantageous source compared to plant-based foods when taking into account bioavailability, high-quality protein, calories, and affordability.
  • Preliminary research suggests real milk may help protect against overweight/obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Plant-based milks can have a good nutrient profile also but it depends on the manufacturer, and   few plant-based milk options can naturally match cow’s milk nutrient makeup. The plant-based milk with the closest nutritional profile of cow’s milk is calcium-fortified soymilk, though it still has different nutritional content than cow’s milk and often contains added ingredients including salt, sugar, natural flavors and thickeners. On the other hand, dairy milk has just three ingredients – milk, vitamin A and vitamin D, making it a minimally processed and wholesome beverage.

Consider also that several plant-based milks are very low in protein such as almond milk, which has only one gram of protein per eight ounces compared to cow’s milk which contains eight grams of high-quality protein in one cup.  This might make it hard for children or elderly to obtain good sources of protein if they are not consuming cow’s milk.

Besides the amount of protein, high-quality protein is an important factor to consider when making the decision of whether to purchase plant-based or dairy milk.  Proteins are found in both animal and vegetable or plant sources.  The building blocks that make up protein are called amino acids.  Protein coming from an animal source of food such as milk contains all of the nine essential amino acids needed by the human body.  Protein found in plant-based foods such as vegetables, beans or nuts, do contain amino acids but are lacking in some of the nine essential amino acids, thus making them an incomplete or low-quality protein source.

Which to choose?

The decision of which type of milk to buy – plant-based or cow’s milk – is ultimately up to each individual consumer.  You will have to weigh what is best for you and your family depending on various factors which might include nutritional value, taste, and the cost.  While cow’s milk remains the most nutrient-rich milk choice, plant-based alternative milks can still be a good choice for people with food restrictions, allergies or intolerances.

The use of both plant-based and cow’s milk can be incorporated into a healthy diet.  Both provide healthy nutrients and can complement one another in how they are used as part of an overall nutritious diet plan.

For an excellent and updated side-by-side comparison between cow’s milk and plant-based alternatives, click on this link: https://milklife.com/milk-vs-non-dairy-milk-alternatives.

Here’s more information on the benefits of milk and milk’s nutrients and the differences between dairy milk and nondairy milk alternatives at www.milklife.com

Categories: Health

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Cheryl Mussatto

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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