Cow’s milk is under siege from the alt-milks of soy, oat, almond, coconut, rice and many others. In this post, I’ll take a look at how these challenger milks stack up against cow’s milk.
Gone are the days when cow’s milk was the only choice at the supermarket. There has been an explosion in recent years of plant-based non-dairy alternative milks. Be it the traditional soy milk, or the new players in the likes of almond, cashew, rice, coconut, oat, and even pea milk, there is no shortage of choice. And a look at Google Trends shows that this plant milk trend has been exploding over the last 2 years and shows no sign of slowing down.
So, should be getting on board the plant-based milk movement to keep your eating ‘on trend’ with the marketing spin that is all things ‘plant-based’ these days? And how do these imitator milks compare to the long-term king in this space of cow’s milk?
Plant-based for health?
Choosing a plant-based milk may seem like it would be a healthy option. But that is more of an emotive judgement. You need to compare apples with apples (or should that be milks with milks?) in products that have similar nutritional profiles to make a fair call about health.
Now, I’ll start by saying that there’s no reason anyone has to drink cow’s milk. In the same way that there is no reason anyone has to eat broccoli, or meat, or blueberries – I could go on all day. There is no food that is essential to our diet; only broad dietary groups that provide similar nutrients. So, if you don’t like milk, or if you’re intolerant to it, or have ethical issues with it, or consider a change from it better for the environment then seeking out an alternative that some of these plant-based milks may offer seems a logical step.
But if you are happy drinking cow’s milk, then there is really no reason to switch to a plant-based option. Cow’s milk is a good dietary source of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and a host of micronutrients that you need in your diet. It is also a great source of protein too.
So, let’s look at how the different plant-based milks to see how they stack up against cow’s milk.
To start, let’s consider soy. And spoiler alert, soy milk is the only realistic option as a close alternative to cow’s milk – all the other plant-based milks are found wanting in one or more areas.
Soy was the first plant-based milk to appear on supermarket shelves and is still the most widely available option. In fact, a 2017 study looking at the nutritional differences between cow’s milk and almond, soy, rice and coconut milk found soy milk fared the best of the alternative milks — by a long shot.
Soy milk is made from either ground soybeans or soy protein powder and is often adjusted with oil and sugar to imitate the consistency of cow’s milk. Soy is a great source of complete protein and typically contains more protein than the other plant-based milk alternatives. And because most of the soy milks are calcium-fortified, it matches cow’s milk in that area too. If you opt for one that is vitamin B12-fortified, then it is the logical choice for anyone following a vegan diet or who simply wants a viable alternative to cow’s milk.
Now, the word ‘soy’ is an emotive one with the Internet proclaiming all sorts of health harms from it. Science very much says the oppositive. Rather than go into that story here, check out my blog post on the science of soy.
Next, there is almond milk. Made from ground almonds, almond milk is low in carbohydrate, protein and kilojoules. It’s what you get when you soak almonds in water, reserve the slurry and then add in some sweeteners.
From a 2017 survey conducted on commercial almond milks by the consumer group CHOICE, they found almond milk contained only 2 to 14 percent almonds, with water being the predominant ingredient. Almond milk tends to be low in energy and saturated fat and contains some healthy unsaturated fats as well as vitamin E, manganese, zinc and potassium. Typically, almond milk contains only one gram of protein per serving. Compared that to cow’s milk which has eight grams per serving.
Almond milk may work as a substitute for cow’s milk in cooking, but it’s a lightweight if you want to use it as a nutritional substitute for cow’s milk. If you are after a pleasant nutty flavour in your coffee or cooking, then almond milk is a good choice.
For someone who has allergy issues with dairy or soy, then almond milk has you covered. If you’re using almond milk as an alternative to dairy milk and wanting at least some similar nutritional benefits, look for one that is fortified with calcium.
Oat milk is another up-and-coming plant-based milk. It’s made by blending oats and water and then straining off the liquid. It’s a useful source of fibre from all that soluble beta-glucan. It also contains vitamin E, folate and riboflavin. It’s low in fat and is naturally sweet because of the higher carbohydrate content compared to cow’s milk.
Because of its naturally light semi-sweet taste, it can be a great alternative if you dislike the nutty-tasting milks and don’t want added sweeteners in your diet. It’s also an excellent choice for giving soups and sauces a rich, creamy texture as it doesn’t breakdown with heat.
In comparison to most other non-dairy milks, oat milk has a higher fibre and protein content. Although with an average of only four grams of protein per serving, oat milk has only half the protein of traditional cow’s milk. Oat milk tends to be low in calcium so again, look for one that is calcium-fortified if you want to use it as a cow’s milk replacement.
Oat milk can’t be considered gluten-free so needs to be avoided by anyone needing to follow a gluten-free diet.
Next, we have rice milk which is made from milled brown rice and water and has comparable kilojoules to cow’s milk. During processing, many of the carbohydrates in the rice break down into smaller sugars resulting in its distinctive sweet taste. It’s naturally high in carbohydrate and sugars but is low in protein and calcium. So again, choose one that’s calcium-fortified if this is important to you.
Rice milk is the least likely of the plant-based milks to be a trigger allergy issue. But for parents, it is NOT a suitable milk substitute for children due to its low nutrient quality.
And final mention goes to the superfood trend that has well-and-truly past its use-by day: coconuts! Made by diluting coconut cream with water then adding in sugar, thickeners and a source of calcium, coconut milk is typically low in carbohydrate and protein and higher in saturated fat compared to cow’s milk. And unless it’s fortified with calcium, it’s a fail in that department too.
What it all means
Time to wrap this up. If it is about nutrition, then there is cow’s milk, soy milk and then daylight to the rest of the alt-milks. But of course, you may choose any of these milks for a variety of reasons such as taste, allergies, the environment or from following a vegetarian diet. And they’re all valid reasons. Just don’t get sucked into the marketing spin of many of these plant-based milks. The new ones tend to be expensive. And none of these plant-based milks are ‘natural’. Each of them has a range of ingredients added to them – be it sugars or other nutrients – to help them resemble cow’s milk.
If you don’t have an issue with cow’s milk, there is little reason to make a switch. If you do go for a plant-based milk, keep an eye out for calcium-fortified ones and maybe even vitamin B12 if you are following a vegan diet.