So many types of non-dairy milk exist on store shelves—soy, oat, almond, and the list goes on. But which one should we choose? And how do these options compare nutritionally against one another and cow’s milk?
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Take a stroll down the dairy aisle in just about any grocery store, or pop into your favorite coffee shop, and you are sure to see a variety of alternative milks and non-dairy competitors piquing your interest. Whether you are vegan, lactose intolerant, looking for more protein, a fan of a thicker, denser flavor, or seeking something lower in calories, there is certainly a corner of the cooler for you.
The key word here is alternatives. Much like plant-based meats and other protein alternatives are not the same as traditional meats in many ways, milk alternatives are not the same as cow’s milk. And furthermore, there are vast nutritional differences between all these ‘milks’.
It seems that as our options increase, so does our confusion. Is plant milk better than animal milk? Should I avoid dairy if I’m not lactose intolerant? Is soy good or bad? Does oat milk have too much sugar?
This milk option confusion confronted me most recently at a visit to a Vermont farmer’s market. I grabbed my canvas bag and started my stroll through the tables of fresh produce, cheese spreads, and artisan goods. I came to a booth selling freshly brewed hot and iced coffees. As I stood in line, the patron in front of me ordered her large black coffee.
As the barista was pouring her cup, the patron began to stare, noticeably confused by the milk carafes in front of her: oat milk, whole milk, and almond milk. Her expression must have read “help me!” as the woman behind the counter set her coffee down and began to explain the differences in the selections in front of her:
“Okay, so you are familiar with whole milk, right? The primary difference between dairy milk and oat milk is that oat milk provides fewer nutrients, and most of the nutrients in it are fortified, meaning that they are added during processing rather than naturally occurring.
Whole milk also has about double the protein and half the carbs compared to oat milk. That said, lots of our customers love the sweet, creamy taste of oat milk, and it’s a nice option for those who are lactose intolerant.
I typically use almond milk for cooking, as it is a good one-to-one substitute for cow’s milk. And in my coffee, almond milk is the lowest in calories of the three options here but also the lowest in protein content.”
The woman smiled and cheerfully said, “I need all the nutrients and protein I can get! Whole milk it is!” I was so enthralled by the conversation. Over the course of a few sentences, the barista concisely provided a 411 on the milk options, of which I certainly would not have been consciously aware. When she handed me my medium iced latte I smiled and poured some almond milk since I had a protein-packed breakfast.
Nutritional Comparison of Milk Alternatives
According to Statista, milk-substitute consumption worldwide has more than doubled since 2013, and the same can be said for the U.S. But what are we actually drinking when we consume more and more of these alternatives? And which nutrients are we missing?
- Cow’s Milk comes in many forms, including whole milk, 2%, 1% and skim. Whole milk is, in fact 3.5% fat, which has a 1.5% higher fat content than its 2% “reduced fat” counterpart.. Our bodies need fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like D, A, E, and K. Additionally, it is a significant source of protein, at about 9g per cup for whole and 8g for 2%. Cows milk is also considered a “complete protein” as it contains 9 of the essential amino acids.
- Goat Milk is the closest nutritionally to cow’s milk. Some consumers may find that they have fewer digestive issues with goat milk when compared to other non-dairy milks. This may be because goat’s milk contains shorter chain fat molecules, and higher MCTs, making it easier to digest. However, goat’s milk contains lactose, so be wary of this if you have a lactose sensitivity.
- Soy Milk took the non-dairy scene by storm starting in the ’90s, offering a tasty alternative to cow’s milk but without any digestive drawbacks. However, since then, anti-GMO activists have vilified this milk alternative, since 90% of soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified (as we know, GMOs are safe and are the most studied seed science. Read more here).
- Oat Milk is known for its creamy taste, high iron content, and lower cholesterol. It also contains about 3 grams of protein per eight-ounce serving and does not contain all essential amino acids. It is a nice option for those who are lactose intolerant or have a nut allergy but be mindful of your carbohydrate intake, as oat milk can contain up to 24 grams per eight-ounce serving.
- Rice Milk may seem ideal if you are lactose intolerant or have a nut allergy, as it’s made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and starch. As you can imagine, those ingredients don’t exactly make for a creamy or nutrient-dense beverage, so to sweeten the taste, manufacturers typically add thickening agents, flavorings, and sweeteners like guar gum and carrageenan.
- Almond Milk is mostly water with a blend of almonds. It is most similar to rice and soy milk in that it is less nutrient dense, containing less fat and protein than cow’s milk. Many brands promote the high nutrient levels of vitamins E, D, and calcium in almonds, but fail to address the amount of water and almonds used in manufacturing (some brands’ almond volume in its milk is as low as 2%). Instead, large amounts of water are needed.
- Coconut Milk is one of the only alternative milks that will likely come in a can or box and can be found in full fat and reduced fat versions. Reduced fat contains more water, whereas the full fat is mainly saturated, making it suitable for cooking. A benefit of coconut milk is that it contains primarily medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which can be used as quick and lasting energy!
- Hemp Milk, made from hemp seeds and water, packs a nutritional punch that even those suffering from nut allergies can enjoy. One eight-ounce glass contains upwards of 900 milligrams of anti-inflammatory omega 3s, all nine essential amino acids, 4 grams of protein, and 8 grams of fat. It also contains a fair amount of vitamins and minerals, including A, E, B12, D, potassium, zinc, and iron.
The list of milk alternatives does not end there; there is peanut, hazelnut, flax, quinoa, pistachio, cashew, and even camel milk… yes, camel. Newest on the scene? Potato milk.
As you can see from the nutritional profiles and other considerations, no milk is created equal. Depending on your dietary needs, taste preferences, or values, be sure to also consider the recommended daily values of vitamins and minerals when making your milk selection.
Beyond Nutrients: Sustainability
We would be remiss if we did not address the environmental impacts of the various milk alternatives. There has been criticism over the impact of the dairy industry on climate change, specifically by way of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by dairy cows and cattle, but it is a complicated web.
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) describes sustainable eating as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”
The FAO’s definition extends beyond just greenhouse gas emissions to include land and water use, labor, nutritional value, soil health, among others.
For example, when comparing cow’s milk with soy milk, soy produces significantly fewer GHGs and uses less land and water. However, almond milk uses roughly 17 times more water than cow’s milk per liter. In fact, it can take over a gallon of water to grow one single almond, depending on the producer.
Although dairy’s average GHGs across the globe are 2.5%, U.S. dairy farmers have already cut their carbon footprint by 63% from 1944 to 2006 by utilizing regenerative practices. Repurposing manure, using anaerobic digesters for energy, recycling wastewater, and utilizing genetic breeding practices to decrease the cow population by 65% are just some of the ways these farmers have done more with fewer inputs and outputs. And all the while, they’ve continued to satisfy global demand and meet the FAO’s guidelines for sustainable development.
This, that AND the other thing
I sat down to dinner after my visit to the farmers market with a big glass of 2% milk. Yes, I had almond milk with my coffee that morning AND I had milk with my dinner. In a world that seems constantly polarizing – always having to decide between this or that – remember there is room for AND, too. With a growing population and more mouths to feed for generations to come, everyone can choose how they enjoy their alternative and traditional milk products.
The Bottom Line
With new milk alternatives hitting the market regularly, don’t forget to examine the nutritional labels to understand the differences. Whether you are searching for something nut-free, dairy-free, or just a creamy flavor profile, no milk is created equal. Be sure to consider your entire diet when deciding on your milks, and refer to the recommended daily values to make the most educated dietary choices.