New research reveals that cow’s and non-dairy milk are not equivalent in nutrition. Plant-based milk generally contains lower amounts of vitamin D, calcium, and protein. However, individuals who prefer plant-based dairy need not be discouraged, as alternative ways exist to obtain these essential nutrients.
The popularity of plant-based milk is soaring, with a wide array of options available, ranging from traditional almond and oat milk to innovative choices like pistachio and cashew milk. The diversity of choices seems limitless.
Nevertheless, when it comes to nutrition, few of these alternatives can match the nutritional value of cow’s milk, as indicated by data presented at the American Society for Nutrition Conference in Boston on July 24 (although the data has not yet been published). Dr. Abigail Johnson, a nutrition researcher at the University of Minnesota, expressed her expectation that manufacturers would have aimed to match cow’s milk in nutrition when developing these products.
However, the nutritional content of non-dairy products varies greatly. Johnson believes that factors such as flavor, texture, and other properties are likely the primary drivers behind the development of these products, rather than a focus on nutritional equivalence to cow’s milk.
Cow’s milk is more nutrient dense than most plant-based alternatives
In a study examining 237 plant-based milk products from 23 different manufacturers, only 28 beverages were comparable or superior to dairy milk in vitamin D, calcium, and protein content. Oat milk emerged as the plant-based milk most commonly fortified with calcium and vitamin D, with 76% of the oat milk analyzed containing both nutrients. Soy milk and almond milk followed as the next best options. However, it is essential to note that the nutritional composition of plant-based bowls of milk varied significantly.
One notable difference between plant-based milk and cow’s milk is the lower protein content in the former, which has been established previously. While cow’s milk provides 8 grams of protein per serving, soy milk usually matches this level, whereas other plant-based milk has an average protein content of only 2 grams per serving.
It is worth mentioning that some experts express skepticism regarding the findings of this study. Dr. Christopher Gardner, director of the Stanford Diabetes Research Center, dismissed the claim that cow’s milk is nutritionally superior as unfounded. He highlighted that plant milk does not contain cholesterol, has low levels of saturated fat, and some even offer fiber—a contrast to dairy milk, which contains cholesterol, saturated fat, and lacks fiber. This makes plant-based milk a preferable choice for specific individuals.
Oat milk fans don’t need to despair yet
If you prefer not to consume cow’s milk, there is no need to worry about missing out on protein, vitamin D, and calcium. Experts say protein intake is generally sufficient in most Americans’ diets. However, if you rely on plant-based milk for calcium and vitamin D, it is crucial to carefully read the labels to ensure they meet your nutritional requirements.
When examining the label, check if the plant-based milk product contains both calcium and vitamin D. If it does, it is highly likely that the added amounts of these nutrients are similar to those found in cow’s milk. However, if the product only lists calcium or vitamin D, it may be less likely to provide comparable levels.
The key takeaway is that plant-based milks are not exact substitutes for cow’s milk. While it is essential to incorporate vitamin D and calcium into your diet, you have various options to obtain these nutrients, including from foods, cow’s milk, or alternative sources. Where to get these essential nutrients can be based on your preferences and dietary needs.