Are plant-based milks really that good for you?

Do you find yourself staring at the grocery "dairy" case, amazed at the ever-expanding plant-based, non-dairy options crowding out the cow's milk? According to data from the USDA, Americans are drinking about 37% less cow's milk today than they did in 1970. Yogurt and cheese sales are thriving so you can't really say it is all about people wanting to decrease animal food intake.

Why have non-dairy, plant-based milks become so popular?

There are several reasons for the change in consumer demand.

  • Cow's milk allergy is the #1 food allergy in children. According to experts, between 2-3% of children younger than 3 years are allergic to cow's milk and food allergies are on the rise in the US. Keep in mind, people with cow's milk allergy are usually also allergic to sheep or goat's milk.
  • Lactose intolerance, the inability to digest lactose (cow's milk sugar) is another reason consumers are using cow's milk alternatives.
  • Health research showing the benefits of a plant-based diet is resulting in people choosing more plant-based milks, like soy or almond milk.
  • Media coverage, celebrity endorsement, fad diet books and the plant-based movement are focused on plant-based foods. Products like coconut and almond milk are flying off the shelf. The dairy industry has tried marketing strategies such as the "Got Milk" ad campaign but has fallen behind the aggressive advertisement of plant-based milks.

Not all milks are the same nutritionally

Here are some tips to help you make your choice:

  • Cow's milk is loaded with nutrition. It provides a number of important nutrients, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. It is important to look at the food label of non-dairy milks to see if they can match these nutrients. One cup of cow's milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Look for plant-based milks that are fortified with calcium as well as the above nutrients.
  • Consider your overall diet to ensure you are getting alternative nutrient sources you may be missing when consuming the plant-based milks. Are you eating high calcium foods, like leafy greens, broccoli, seeds and quinoa? Are you including potassium sources like bananas, tomatoes, and peppers? What about vitamin B12 sources like meat, salmon, eggs, and nutritional yeast?
  • Look at the ingredient list of your plant-based milk choice. Is it more processed than you realized? Does it have extra sugar added? Select the unsweetened types and try to limit the added sugar to less than 10 g per serving.
  • Several brands of nut and grain milks are now offering added protein to boost the protein content.
  • Filtered cow's milk is also available. It is nutrient-rich with extra protein and calcium, and is creamier and richer. It is labeled as "high protein" milk and may be a good choice if you need extra protein. Keep in mind that the sodium content is also higher.

Pros and cons of plant-based milks on the market

  • Soy milk: Closest to cow's milk in protein content; has a nutty, bean flavor; useful to boost protein in shakes; works well in baking.
  • Rice milk: Low in calories but also low in protein; has no saturated fat; sweet, nutty flavor; most hypoallergenic choice that is often used for multiple food allergies.
  • Nut milks (almond, cashew): Plain types are the lowest calorie plant-based milk option; very low carb so nice choice to pair with cereal for diabetes; nutty flavor.
  • Pea milk: Another high protein choice; usually has added oil for creaminess; pea flavor that is slightly bitter.
  • Coconut milk: High in saturated fat; zero protein (unless added); slightly tart coconut flavor.
  • Oat milk: Has half the protein of cow's milk; adds fiber to diet; high calorie, high carbohydrate content; looks like eggnog; has sweet oat flavor.

Bottom Line

Be smart and don't just grab a plant-based milk simply because it's trendy or showcased in the grocery. Plant-based milks vary in calories, fat content and the amount of sweetener added. Do a little homework reading the nutrition facts label to see what might fit your unique nutritional needs. If you like cow's milk, stick with it! You can always get your plant nutrition directly from the veggies, fruits, and grains!

Originally published on 19 July 2017
Updated: September 23, 2019

Brenda Braslow, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE
Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Foods & Recipes/Dairy Foods Alcohol & Other Beverages/Milk

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