By Elaine Zhu
Just a few years ago, whenever I went to the dairy aisle, I only had to choose between buying skim, whole, or 2% milk. Nowadays, when I walk down that same aisle, I am bombarded with choices: soy, almond, oat, cashew. In recent years, many consumers have turned to plant-based milk, causing sales of dairy milk to slowly decrease. In fact, between 2009 and 2015, global sales of non-dairy milk alternatives soared to $21 billion while cow’s milk sales have dropped 7 percent in 2015 and are projected to drop an additional 11 percent through the end of 2020. Choosing plant-based milk is quite appealing to some consumers, especially if they are lactose intolerant. However, how does the nutritional profile of these plant-based milks compare to cow’s milk, and are they a suitable substitute for a dietary staple?
Cow’s milk is known as a valuable source of micronutrients and macronutrients. Many children consume it as part of their daily diet for a dependable source of calcium and protein. It also has nutrients such as vitamin B12 and iodine, which are crucial components of a healthy diet. Cow’s milk includes magnesium, which is essential for bone and muscle development, as well as casein and whey proteins, which can help with lowering blood pressure. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service suggests that children get at least 350 milligrams of calcium a day for proper bone growth and development, which is around a pint of milk.
Some people prefer plant-based milks to animal milk. As stated by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, around 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, making plant-based milks a necessary alternative. In contrast to animal milk, plant-based milks are composed of dissolved plant extracts and water. This combination undergoes homogenization and is heated to help stabilize the plant milk.
So, how do plant-based milk alternatives compare in their nutritional value? Most of them have a lower or equivalent amount of calories per cup compared to that of whole milk. Most of these milks also have less fat and sugar. Moreover, almond, pea, and flaxseed milk even have a larger quantity of calcium compared to cow’s milk. In contrast, however, most plant-based milks have lower protein content and lower quality of proteins than cow’s milk. A 2017 study examined seventeen various plant-based milk alternatives and only found that soy milk had comparable levels of protein to cow’s milk.
With so many varieties of both animal and plant milk on the market, it can be increasingly difficult to choose between them. Many people are opting for plant-based milk alternatives for medical, ethical, or lifestyle reasons. Whatever milk you decide to buy, as long as you eat a balanced diet, you won’t be missing out on crucial nutrients. With more milk and milk alternatives choices hitting the grocery shelves, consumer awareness of nutritional content will become even more important for people’s health and diets.