Have you been to the dairy section of the grocery store lately? If you have, you may have noticed some difficulty finding your favorite cow’s milk. In addition to your fat-free, 1%, 2%, and whole milks, there is an abundance of nut, grain, and legume-based “non-dairy beverages” or more commonly, “milks,” occupying the shelves. As more plant-based milk alternatives become available, there has been a downward trend in cow’s milk intake.
The Emergence of Plant-Based, Non-Dairy, Milk-Alternative Beverages
Between 2000 and 2016, the USDA’s economic research service reported the “U.S. per capita dairy milk consumption decreased by 22%.”1,2 There are many reported theories for this decline over the years. The most common is milk allergy or intolerance of lactose and/or one of the milk proteins, casein. Other contributions include digestive issues (Inflammatory Bowel Disease including Crohn’s, Colitis, and Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, and concerns over inflammation), a vegan lifestyle, concerns surrounding the use of antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones as well as information relating to the carbon footprint of cows.3
Are these alternative products really milk?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, milk is:
1 a: a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young
By this definition, products from nuts, grains, and legumes are not milk. This has led to many lawsuits by the dairy industry of manufacturers calling their products “milk.” And to that end, there was an addendum to the definition of milk4:
b: (1): milk from an animal and especially a cow used as food by people
(2): a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and used similarly to cow’s milk
From this definition, one could call the plant-based products “milk.”
A milk is a milk is a milk?
Dairy foods produced from cow’s milk provide many nutrients needed by the human body. They are particularly good sources of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus, not to mention many other vitamins and minerals.
Protein is needed by the body for tissue growth and repair. It also aids in the building of bone, muscle, and blood. Cow’s milk provides the body with two types of protein: whey and casein. Together, they make milk an excellent source of protein.
Calcium is a mineral that is needed for strong bones and teeth. Calcium also keeps our blood vessels healthy and our heart beating steady. Cow’s milk is an excellent source of the type of calcium the human body absorbs and uses.
Vitamin D is needed by the body to absorb calcium. A diet that is inadequate in vitamin D can lead to brittle bones and muscle aches. Vitamin D is also converted on our skin with exposure to the sun—however, sunscreen limits this conversion, which is why vitamin D supplementation is very common. Cow’s milk does not contain vitamin D but is fortified with it.
Phosphorus is another mineral needed by the body for healthy bones, teeth, muscles, and blood vessels. The amount of phosphorus in the blood affects the amount of calcium in the blood. All of these nutrients work together for healthy muscles, tissue, bones, and teeth.
Cow’s milk is rich with many additional nutrients, which are not offered in plant-based alternatives. The alternatives can be fortified to become more nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk but may also contain additives to produce a creamy, thick texture to help stabilize the product. Common additives to plant-based milks include carrageenan, gums, lecithin, and vegetable oil. These additives can negatively affect your health, especially people with allergies.
There are many plant-based milk alternatives available, including nuts (almond, cashew, coconut), legumes (soy, pea), grains (oat, rice), and seeds (flax, hemp). How do they compare nutritionally? The table below provides an overview of the nutritional composition of 8 ounces of a plant-based beverage compared to 8 ounces of 1% cow’s milk.
Table 1 Overview of the nutritional content of plant-based milk compared to cow’s milk
How do popular plant-based milks compare?
There are many ways that manufacturers make their milk alternatives and include varying amounts of added nutrients.
Most milks are made by grinding nuts and adding water. During the straining process, protein and other nutrients are lost, which requires fortification.
Almond milk is both pasteurized and sterilized to remove pathogens per federal regulations. Although almond milk is a great source of vitamin E, it is very low in vitamins, minerals, and essential fats.5
Cashew milk may contain almond butter as various thickeners.
Coconut milk is a good source of vitamin B12, but it also contains saturated fat. It is typically used for baking rather than drinking. Most products chosen as a beverage have water added and are labeled as a “coconut milk beverage”5 and may contribute fiber.
Hazelnut milk compares with almond as far as calories and protein but does have added stabilizers.
Macadamia milk has a similar profile to coconut with its saturated fat content, and through enriching, it is also a good source of both calcium and B12.
Since the 1950s, the public eye has seen soymilk as the closest non-dairy product to cow’s milk. Soymilk is an excellent source of calcium and protein. The production process includes soaking, crushing, cooking, and straining soybeans5. Unfortunately, this product can be a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) depending on the manufacturer and comes with controversy regarding its health effects due to its phytoestrogen content which has fueled breast cancer risk concerns in the past.
Gaining popularity due to its protein content, milk made from yellow field peas is becoming more widely available in a variety of flavors. To make this milk, peas are first milled into a flour, which separates the protein from the starch. The protein is then combined with water and other ingredients to produce milk. This plant-based milk is very close in taste to cow’s milk and it is fortified with calcium. Many environmentalists like this product due to its low carbon footprint.
The go-to product for those with allergies, rice milk is made by boiling brown rice and brown rice starch in water. This milk is low in protein and until it is enriched it is also very low in most nutrients. Fat is sometimes added as an emulsifier. Oat milk is made by cleaning, toasting, and hulling the oat and combining it with other grains. It does contain fiber which is missing from cow’s milk. The oat contributes its own iron, vitamin E, and folic acid. As grain products, they are both naturally higher in carbohydrate than other non-dairy milks. Both are good choices for those with nut and seed allergies but may contain gluten.
Hemp milk originates from the Cannabis sativa plant but is low in THC which is psychotropic. It is gluten, nut, and soy-free and low in carbohydrate. It contains both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and some calcium among other nutrients.
Flax milk is made from cold-pressed flax oil combined with water, thickeners, and emulsifiers. Nutritionally, it is similar to almond milk but provides a good amount of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Flax does come with health controversies as well as it contains three times the amount of phytoestrogens as soy milk.
We have covered nut, seed, grain, and legume-based milk, but make way for one made from fruit! Just as the name implies, this “milk” is made from pureed organic bananas and roasted organic sunflower seeds6. Gellan gum is added for stabilization and thickening. Nutritionally, it is low in protein and contains no calcium. On the plus side, it is vegan-friendly, non-GMO, has no added sugar, and is nut, dairy, gluten, and carrageenan free.
More and more people are looking for alternatives to cow’s milk for a variety of reasons. Allergies, antibiotics, and hormones found in cow’s milk and the carbon footprint of cows are concerns for many. There are more alternatives to cow’s milk available today than ever—and don’t be surprised if you see even more in the future. What to choose depends on what you are looking for in a product as well as any special health needs you may have. Remember to read and compare the label and ingredients to find the best product for you.
Watch the following video on shopping for milk.
References and sources:
1. USDA, Economic Research Service. Dairy Products, per Captia Consumption. Government Publishing Office, 13 July 2019, www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/dairy data/documentation/#Loc7. Accessed 18 Aug. 2019. Dairy Data.
2. McCarthy, Niall. “Milk’s Massive American Decline.” Statista Daily Infographic, 13 May 2019, www.statista.com. Accessed 18 Aug. 2019. Infographic.
3. Ferreira, Sanae. “Going Nuts About Milk? Here’s What You Need to Know About Plant-Based Milk Alternatives.” American Society for Nutrition, 25 Jan. 2019, nutrition.org/. Accessed 9 Aug.2019.
4. “Milk.” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster, 2019 ed., Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com. Accessed 18 Aug. 2019.
5. Bridges, Meagan. “Moo-ove Over, Cow’s Milk: The Rise of Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives.” Practical Gastroenterology, 171st ser., Jan. 2018, pp. 20-27, www.practicalgastro.com. Accessed 18 Aug. 2019.
6. Mooala™ Bananamilk. https://mooala.com/products/bananamilk/bananamilk-original/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2019.
Vanga, Asi Kranthi, and Vijaya Raghavan. “How Well Do Plant-Based Alternatives Fare Nutritionally Compared to Cow’s Milk?” Journal of Food Science Technology, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 10-20, doi:10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y. Accessed 18 Aug. 2019.