Plant vs. Animal Milk


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If you have ever been in the milk section of the dairy aisle and felt overwhelmed about all the options, you are not alone. From reduced fat or whole milk to shelf-stable plant-based milks you would never even expect could be “milked” – almonds, oats, rice, peas, this section now offers more milk choices than ever before. While these plant-based milk alternatives are taking up space in the dairy section, cow’s milk surprisingly remains the most popular dairy option in terms of retail sales. Many people opting for plant-based milks have dietary restrictions. Others believe these alternatives are healthier than cow’s milk. Taking a closer look however, some non-dairy beverages may not be as nutritious as they seem.

Despite their similarities in color and texture, plant-based milks have a different nutritional profile than cow’s milk. For example, cow’s milk is naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins, and is typically fortified with vitamin A and vitamin D. Although many plant-based milks are also enriched with these nutrients, not all of them are. This is why it is important to review nutrition labels to ensure you get the same essential nutrients if you’d like non-dairy milk to be part of a healthy diet. Let’s compare some of the most popular plant-based milks to get a better idea as to how these versions stack up to one another in terms of nutrition.

Almond Milk

The most popular plant milk of all, almond milk has a nutty flavor with a light, creamy texture. In one cup, you can find 37 calories (about a quarter less than whole milk) and about four times less fat. Although some of the fat content in almond milk comes from almonds, the remaining fat comes from vegetable oils which are added to achieve a creamy texture. Unlike almond milk, cow’s milk is available in a variety of fat levels, including 2%, 1%, and non-fat options. As for protein, one cup of whole milk contains 8 grams, whereas almond milk contains about 1 gram. The reason why almond milk contains very few grams of all macronutrients is because its primary ingredient is water, and the micronutrients it does contain are fortified. This makes almond milk a mediocre alternative to cow’s milk. However, if chosen unsweetened and with fortified vitamins and minerals, almond milk can still be part of a healthful diet.

Oat Milk

Sales of this creamy plant-based drink have surged since last year, making it one of the fastest-growing plant milks. While there are several brands, the popular Oatly! Brand’s original version contains 7 grams of added sugars and only 3 grams of protein. It also has 2 grams of fiber, which is more than cow’s milk, but this amount is too low to contribute to daily fiber needs. Eating oatmeal is going to be a much better fiber source as it contains twice as much as oat milk. Compared with whole milk, oat milk is also higher in carbohydrates. Overall, it does have a little more protein and fiber compared with other plant-based milks but be sure to choose unsweetened versions to reduce blood sugar spikes.

Pea Milk

Pea milk’s taste and creamy consistency are very similar to cow’s milk. This milk is produced by milling yellow split peas, separating the protein from fiber and starch, and then blending it with water and other ingredients to create a thick, creamy texture. Like other plant milks made from legumes, pea milk is high in protein (about 7 grams per cup). Unsweetened versions also have fewer calories than cow’s milk, and less fat. As for micronutrients, pea milk has 50% more phosphorus, zinc and selenium than cow’s milk! Peas also require less water to grow than almonds, making them a more environmentally friendly choice. This makes pea milk an excellent alternative to cow’s milk.

Soy Milk

This flavorful beverage was once a waste product from making tofu. Like pea milk, soy milk is made by soaking, milking, and straining soybeans. When fortified with certain micronutrients, soy milk is the most comparable to cow’s milk in terms of nutrient balance. It has 7 grams of protein and less fat than cow’s milk. It is also an excellent source of potassium. Overall, soymilk not only is another excellent alternative to cow’s milk, but it can also be a great addition to a well-balanced diet.

Among these popular plant-based milks, pea and soy milk are most comparable to cow’s milk in terms of protein, texture, taste, and micronutrients. With fewer grams of fat, these plant-based milks can be part of a well-balanced diet, especially for weight loss goals. Unsweetened almond and oat milk can be great alternatives when consumed in small amounts but should not be consumed as a replacement for cow’s milk. These beverages do not have nearly as much protein as cow’s milk, but when paired with adequate amounts of protein from other foods, they can still be part of a healthy diet!

Monica Echeverri holds a Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States and currently works as a food photographer, writer, and recipe developer.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD