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How Do Plant-Based Milks Stack Up to Cow’s Milk? Two Nutritionists Weigh In

6 min read

If food trend predictions are accurate, then plant-based milks are about to have an even more massive explosion in popularity in 2019. Even conventional store shelves that once traditionally carried only dairy-based options are now crowded with almond, soy, oat and other plant-based milks in eye-catching packaging. But, despite the milk label and strategic placement, these beverages vary significantly from dairy milk and each comes with its own unique nutrient profile. So how do you know which is right for you? Ask a dietician. So that’s what we did.

What is non-dairy ‘milk’?

Sarah Gold, MS, RDN, and owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition explains, “Non-dairy milk, sometimes referred to as plant-based milks, are milk drinks made from plant foods such as nuts, soy or grains.” Some of the more common varieties of non-dairy milks are made from oats, rice, almonds, soy, flax, cashew and coconut.

Can non-dairy or plant-based milks actually be called ‘milk’?

Yes, but that might change. The Food and Drug Administration is taking a closer look at the definition of “milk” and is currently accepting public comments to determine if it should be used only for dairy milk products.  Despite the potential for consumer confusion on the definition of milk, one survey found that of the Americans surveyed, there is a clear understanding of where these non-dairy milks come from. Stay tuned for potential changes to how the word is used on food labels.

How do you know which ‘milk’ is right for you?

The sheer number of options on store shelves can be overwhelming, but understanding that non-dairy milk and cow’s milk have vastly different nutrient profiles is one of the first steps to helping you make a decision that works for you.

If you’re looking to replace cow’s milk then New York City-based dietitian Molly Cleary MS, RDN, stresses the importance of the nutrient profile of non-dairy milk. “It’s important to look at protein, calcium and vitamin D content as these are the most common reasons that people drink milk in the first place,” she says.

So how does cow’s milk stack up when it comes to nutrition? “Classic cow’s milk typically contains about eight grams of protein per cup and at least 30 percent [of your] daily value for calcium and vitamin D.” However, Molly says that if you’re simply looking for something tasty to splash in your coffee, then the precise nutrient breakdown might be less important.

And what about protein? Sarah says, “With the exception of soy and pea-protein milks, most non-dairy milks have negligible amounts of protein.” Plus, the protein found in non-dairy milks (with the exception of soy) is not a complete protein. In other words, they don’t contain the nine essential amino acids. But, if you’re following a vegan, vegetarian or plant-based diet with a variety of plant-based sources of protein, you likely don’t need the extra amino acids.

Cow’s milk is also a source of other important nutrients that may or may not be found in non-dairy milk varieties. “Some are fortified with vitamins A and D and calcium, whereas others are not,” Sarah says. “But if you’re getting these nutrients elsewhere in your diet I wouldn’t obsess over individual amounts.”

When you’re choosing a plant-based milk, it’s also advisable to pay attention to what else is in the formula. “In general, I recommend looking for the simplest ingredient list,” says Sarah. “Probably most importantly, choose unsweetened versions as many non-dairy milks can have a lot of added sugar. Some brands add unnecessary additives or stabilizers such as carrageenan, so like any other food, choose one with a short list of ingredients that you recognize.”

Common varieties of plant-based milks on the market today: A breakdown

Almond Milk

“Almond milk, along with other nut milks like cashew and walnut milk, can make a great low-calorie, yet creamy and flavorful, base for smoothies, addition to oatmeal, or used in baking,” Sarah says. If you’re choosing it to replace dairy milk, then it’s likely best to look for the fortified versions. “Most nut milks are primarily water, so they offer little nutritional value unless they are fortified. Again, read labels so you know what you are getting.”

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is popular for cooking and in vegan baking, but it doesn’t come without some nutrition controversy due to its saturated fat content. “Coconut milk is great for cooking as it adds a unique flavor to dishes,” Sarah mentions. “However, it is high in saturated fat, so take that into consideration when you look at your whole days’ worth of saturated fat.” The lesson? Pay attention to your whole diet, not just your milk choices.

Pea Milk

Likely less popular than the others on this list, pea milk is still one to consider since a few brands have touted the benefits of it. “Pea milk is a good option for anyone with multiple allergies as it doesn’t contain dairy, wheat, soy or nuts, and it is often fortified with several vitamins and minerals,” Sarah says. Current brands offering pea milk range from eight to 10 grams of protein per cup, which is significantly higher than the one gram per cup most commonly found in almond milk. 

Soy Milk

Soy milk has been practically ubiquitous on store shelves since the 90s and is nutritionally the closest to dairy milk. “It has a similar calorie and protein content, and can be substituted in most recipes,” says Molly. “Most soy milk has also been fortified with calcium and vitamin D to more closely mirror cow’s milk.”

Oat Milk

The trendiest “milk” on the market, oat milk has popped up in an increasing number of coffee shops, where baristas are using it as an alternative to dairy milk in lattes and other milk-based coffee beverages—they say it’s the easiest to work with of the non-dairy choices. “Oat milk is a good option for anyone who is allergic to both dairy and nuts, and it can be a less expensive non-dairy milk option,” Sarah mentions. “However, if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, make sure it’s made from gluten-free oats as oats can be contaminated with gluten.

Should you be choosing non-dairy milks to replace traditional cow’s milk?

The answer is… it depends. “In general, there are minimal health benefits to choosing plant milks over dairy milk unless you have an allergy or sensitivity,” Sarah says, though she also goes on to say that plant-based diets as a whole offer many health benefits.

The bottom line? The nutrients matter and can vary significantly from one non-dairy milk to another. That’s why it’s most important to consider your personal needs alongside reading ingredient labels to choose the right one for you.

Want to hear from more nutritionists on food trends? Here’s what one wants you to know about basic nutrition.

About The Author

Allison Knott

Allison Knott

Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD is a registered dietitian and board certified specialist in sports nutrition based in New York City. Allison is an experienced nutrition consultant, speaker, and writer. She has a demonstrated history working in the food and beverage industry supporting corporate wellness initiatives. Allison has been featured in multiple television segments and in national publications including EatingWell, POPSUGAR, TIME Health, Shape, and Boston Magazine. In 2016, Allison started ANEWtrition, a consulting practice dedicated to delivering authentic, relatable, and consistent nutrition and wellness solutions.

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