How Plant-Based Milk Compares to Dairy
Plant-based milks are incredibly popular. It feels like a new one is popping up on our shelves every week. Almond, cashew, coconut, hazelnut, hemp, oat, rice and soy. It’s hard to keep up! It can make things pretty confusing. Which should you choose? Which is the healthiest? Which tastes the best?
All fair questions.
It’s easy to believe in the marketing claims that one is better for you than the other.
A recent survey revealed that sales of dairy milk are decreasing, while nondairy beverages are growing by the day. The survey showed that half of Americans are purchasing more milk alternatives because they perceive them to be more nutritious than dairy milk.
But is that actually true?
Disclaimer: This post isn’t to convince you which milk you should choose. Rather take this as an informative piece so you can make the best decision for yourself. You are the expert on your own body. Knowing the nutritional values of certain foods can help guide you to make an informed decision on your food choices.
Many people choose milk alternatives for many reasons. One most obvious reasons is a milk allergy or milk intolerance. Another common reason is vegans or individuals who choose to eliminate all animal products. But some of you who don’t fall under any dairy restriction may choose nondairy drinks because you like the taste, the flavor, the consistency and possibly because you also perceive them as a more nutritious option.
Now, let’s review the nutritional value of your favorite milk / “milk” beverages.
Let’s start with good ole’ dairy milk. Humans have been drinking cows milk since the early centuries. It’s been an important food for early civilizations. It’s a wholesome food containing all major nutrients: fat, carbohydrates and protein. It also contains high quantities of bioavailable calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, magnesium and a variety of B vitamins. Meaning, our bodies easily absorb these nutrients into our system and made available for active function. All these nutrients work together to optimize muscle, bone and teeth health.
Yes, it’s true many other foods contain these micronutrients, so milk isn’t absolutely necessary. However, milk gives us a convenient option to consume a wide variety of bone-protecting nutrients in just one sip.
The protein in milk is considered high-quality protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids required in the body to build strong muscle tissue.
Dairy milk is high in saturated fats, so it’s not ideal to drink gallons on gallons a day. I’m kidding, I know you wouldn't do that. But remember, saturated fats are more of a problem when you follow a diet high in greasy, highly processed foods on a consistent, long-term basis.
Opting for a glass of milk on the regular, combined with a balanced diet adequate in fiber and healthy fats (avocado, fish, nuts, olive oil) is totally safe.
Read my post on breaking down dietary fats: What is the Difference Between Health and Unhealthy Fats.
If you’re concerned with your saturated fat intake, choosing 1% or low fat is an option.
Keep in mind, fat adds flavor to our foods. So if you value flavor (which you should! That’s why we like food!) don’t be shy with whole milk. Fat is a readily source of energy for the body, ideally used in long workouts.
It's important to consider purchasing organic dairy, if you have the means. Organic milk carries more nutrient value, has no added hormones, and you can trust cows are treated humanely. Local dairy is optimal, whether it’s organic or not. Since you’re getting it so close to the source it’s richer in flavor and nutrients, plus you're supporting your local dairy farmer. Win, win!
Soy milk is a popular choice amongst dairy alternative beverages. Soybeans are naturally high in protein and healthy fat. Soy milk is not as high in protein and fat compared to cow’s milk. However, it makes for a great source of protein for vegans or individuals with milk allergies. One cup of soy milk typically has about 7-12 grams of plant-based protein.
Soy milk ranks high in nutritional value amongst other nondairy drinks. It’s not naturally high in calcium and other nutrients, so manufacturers typically fortify or “enrich” it to match up to its natural competitor.
Recently consumers have been hesitant to consume soy products due to the possibility of increased risk of hormonal cancers. However, more recent studies done with human subjects revealed soybeans that are minimally processed (example, soy milk, miso, tempeh) carry many of the plant's disease-fighting properties. It’s the processed soy, or ‘soy protein isolates’ you want to steer clear from.
Almond milk is another popular nondairy beverage option. It’s made by soaking and grinding almonds with lots of water. It creates a milky white liquid that is then filtered to remove solid content. Almonds alone are naturally high in protein and fiber, however, these nutrients are lost in the process of creating almond milk. One cup of almond milk has about 1-5 grams of protein.
Almond milk has the least number of calories, and relatively low protein value compared to dairy and soy milk. It’s high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which is a healthy fat that has been shown to reduce LDL (the “bad” cholesterol).
The quantity of vitamins and minerals in most nondairy beverages is not as available compared to dairy. But some research has considered almond milk to be a good source of antioxidants such as vitamin E, which helps to protect cells against damage that leads to cancer, heart disease and cataracts and vitamin A, which helps to develop immune and mucosal cells and protect against eye disease.
Almond milk manufacturers also fortify their milk with micronutrients like calcium and vitamin D.
Coconut milk is made by extracting the liquid from grating the coconut’s “white meat”. It’s most widely used as a [delicious] canned food ingredient in various authentic Indian and Southeast Asia cuisine (mmm, coconut curryyy). But more recently it's been poured into milk cartoons as a beverage option. Coconut is rich in saturated fats. It’s been shown to increase HDL ("good" cholesterol) and reduce LDL ("bad" cholesterol). It has little calories and no protein. The micronutrient values aren’t readily available.
Rice milk is made by mixing milled brown rice with water. It’s rich in carbohydrates and contains more sugar than dairy milk. Protein and fat content is minimal. Rice does not naturally contain calcium and many other micronutrients that are found in dairy, therefore some brands will fortify the beverage. It’s one of the least allergenic beverage.
Oat milk is made by straining soaked oats in water. The results make a creamy texture fluid that’s surprisingly sweet. Oats contain natural sugars called beta-glucans that have been shown to boost the immune system. The creamy texture of oat milk makes it a great option for lattes and iced coffees. It’s low in protein (~1g). The micronutrient values aren’t readily available.
Cashew milk is made similarly to almond milk. It’s also similar in nutrient value, in that it’s low in calories and has little to no protein content. It has a good amount of healthy fats, and zero saturated fats. The micronutrient values aren’t readily available.
Hemp milk is derived from the seed of hemp plants. Hemp seeds are naturally rich in healthy fats. It contains minimal protein, about 2 - 3 grams per cup. It’s typically fortified with calcium and vitamin B12 and D. Hemp seeds have an earthy, beany-nutty flavor profile, whom some say requires an acquired taste. Hemp milk is typically sweetened with cane juice or brown rice syrup, which are just other words for sugar. The micronutrient values aren’t readily available.
Milk is widely accepted to be a good source of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. It’s high in bioavailable calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, magnesium, and a variety of B vitamins.
Soy is the second best option in terms of nutritional value. It’s a good source of plant-based protein and healthy fats.
As with all nondairy beverages, calcium and vitamin D is typically fortified but always double check the label. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) aren’t readily available for the majority of nondairy drinks, so it’s difficult to compare. However, because we know how they’re made (excess amount of water) it’s fair to assume nutrient levels are low.
You don’t have to ignore your taste buds in the name of nutrition. If you avoid dairy completely, be mindful and make calcium and vitamin D a priority with other foods in your diet.
--- “Nondairy milk should not be considered a nutritional substitute for cow’s milk until nutrient quality and bioavailability is established.”