Real Milk VS Plant-Based "Milk"
Updated: Jul 17
Since the early days of human history, people have been drinking milk from animals. These days, however, people have more options when they go to their dairy departments. “Milk” made from alternative ingredients, like almonds, oats, soy, and rice, has made a multi-billion-dollar industry.
One reason it’s gained traction is difficulty digesting conventional milk. Many people chalk it up to lactose intolerance, but lactose intolerance is more uncommon than most people think. Switching to a more digestible milk with A2/A2 protein can help these people drink milk again.
Another often-given reason for plant-based milks is environmental. For this, consumers should be cautious. Plant-based doesn’t always equal environmentally friendly. For example, it takes 15 gallons of water to grow 16 almonds, often in drought-stricken California.
There are a few more reasons to consider real milk if able. Let’s dive deeper!
Plant Dairy is Ultra-Processed
There’s been a lot of buzz about minimally versus ultra-processed foods. According to a research paper published in Advances in Nutrition by Adam Drewnowski, ultra-processed foods, “has been linked to higher risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, depressive symptoms, cancer, and all-cause mortality.”
Ultra-processed food products require whole foods to be broken up into substances, then put back together into a product that further adds flavors, stabilizers, and sophisticated packaging. According to the same journal article mentioned above, “the purpose of ultra-processing, as described by NOVA literature, is to displace wholesome unprocessed or minimally processed foods.”
How are these “milks” made? Plant “milks” are made by isolating oils from plant sources through soaking, grinding, and heating, sometimes with high pressure. Oil globules remain in suspension but only with stabilizers and emulsifiers. To polish it a bit more they add thickening substances, hydrocolloid stabilizing agents, added salt, added caloric or noncaloric sweeteners, and a wide range of added vitamins and minerals to make it imitate the real deal.
According to Drewnowski, Plant-based beverages are clearly intended to displace minimally processed dairy milk. Milk like Snowville Creamery’s is minimally processed and has none of the added ingredients, stabilizers, or thickeners of conventional or ultra-processed plant “milks.”
With nutrition, plant “milks” don’t stack up against real dairy. Besides just superior calcium content, real milk is the protein champion. This makes it a superior option for feeling fuller and for active individuals.
In an article published by the New York Times, Jackie Haven, deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said, “Usually, these beverages do not include all the necessary nutrients needed to replace dairy foods.”
While some alternative plant beverages may fortify their “milks” with calcium and protein to give it similar nutrition, it’s not the same. That’s according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
According to a publication by Izabella Toledo with UF/IFAS, plant-based beverages’ protein is an “incomplete protein” because it lacks essential amino acids. Even in soy “milk”, the closest contender to cow’s milk for protein, lacks important amino acids in its composition. This affects its ability to be absorbed and be useful to the body.
Calcium, too, can’t compare in fortified plant beverages versus the naturally occurring calcium in cow milk. According to UF/IFAS, adding calcium doesn’t guarantee that it will be nutritionally equivalent to other products that naturally contain similar amounts. “Fortified plant-based beverages cannot be considered nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.”
A Glance at Some Competitors
Here are a few of the popular "Milks" that many turn to and why they don't stack up to real milk.
Lacks protein content
Raw almonds have more protein
Uses a lot of water to grow
Lower protein than real milk
"If you are looking for health benefits from oat milk, you're better off eating oatmeal." - Dr. Edwin McDonald IV, Associate Director of Adult Clinical Nutrition at the University of Chicago Medicine
Needs to be fortified to even closely match cow's milk for nutrition
Some concern about the estrogen mimicking compounds called isoflavones in soy, which there isn't enough data to show harm or benefit
Contains high levels of phytic acid, which inhibits absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc
Very low or no protein or fiber
Contains fast-digesting carbohydrates that can quickly convert into glucose, spiking insulin and blood sugar levels. (A concern for diabetics or those with insulin resistance.)
The Wrap Up
In cases of true lactose intolerance or allergies, sometimes alternatives need to be considered. When this is the case, it’s important to read about the types of plant beverages and choose an unsweetened variety, as added sugars in these can contain up to 20 grams of sugar. (Versus 12.5g of naturally occurring lactose in cow’s milk.)
But for most people, choosing a milk that is minimally processed will work better than any plant beverage. It has more nutrition and avoids the risky additives of ultra-processed foods. An A2/A2 milk, like Snowville Creamery’s, can allow those who thought they couldn’t drink cow’s milk access to this nutrient rich food without the unpleasant side effects.
In the end, we’ll go with advice found in the New York Times article. When it comes to consuming plant-based foods, it’s better to consume them in their whole, unprocessed format. Snacking on almonds, eating oatmeal for breakfast, or soybeans in our stir fry. Minimally processed or as unprocessed as we can get them. Because, as Dr. Gardner says in the article, “When you make milk of them, you are removing some of the nutrients.” And real, minimally-processed milk, is already nature's perfect food.
Read more about the minerals and vitamins in milk, as well as the health roles they play in our Meet the Minerals article!
You can also read about how chocolate milk is a better recovery drink for hydration than either water or sports drinks here!
Sources and Further Reading
Oatly vs. Milk: Is Plant-Based Dairy Healthier? by Markham Heid
The New York Times: Are Plant Milks Good For You? by Dawn MacKeen
University of Florida, IFAS Extension: Plant-Based Beverages Vs Cow's Milk by Izabella Toledo