When it comes to milk, not all all varieties stand equally. In recent years, alternative dairy products such as almond and soy milk have flooded the dairy aisle and jostled for space on supermarket shelving. Now more than ever, consumers find themselves deliberating over the cartons on display, wondering which milk will be the healthiest for their families. As Purdue faculty member Dr. Dennis Savaiano comments in an interview on the subject, many buyers of nut- or plant-based milks believe that the varietals they purchase are better than traditional cow’s milk simply because vegetable-based products seem healthier – but are they? Here, we take a closer look at popular alternative milks and assess whether plant-based milks truly live up to their reputation as superfoods.
Despite their names, plant- and nut-based milks are not technically milks. Rather, manufacturers make their products by grinding a bean or nut into powder before adding water, vitamins and flavors to create a milk-like substitute. Given the flexibility of the process itself, “milk” formulas, sugar contents, and nutritional compositions often vary across manufacturers. This variety stands in stark contrast to traditional cow’s milk, which usually comes in just a few similar varietals: fat-free, 2%, and whole. Moreover, unlike plant-based milks, the nutritional content of traditional milk is fairly consistent. Variable fat contents excepted, the protein and vitamin contents will remain the same even across different brands and manufacturers. With this in mind, we can turn to assessing the health benefits of traditional milk against those of plant-based alternatives.
Unfortunately, the wide variety of alternative milk products makes it difficult to make a detailed comparison against traditional cow’s milk, given that each product’s nutrient and sugar composition changes drastically depending on the recipe and production process. Generally speaking, however, plant-based milks do not have the high amount of calcium and vitamins found in traditional milk, and often have far more sugar. The only sweetener in cow’s milk is lactose, a naturally occurring milk sugar. Vegetable milks, in contrast, typically feature sweetening ingredients such as cane sugar or juice. The most significant differentiating factor, however, is protein. According to statistics published by researchers at Milk Life, dairy milk contains as much as eight grams of protein in a single eight-ounce glass, while plant-based milks might only have one gram. Soy milk comes closest to matching traditional milk’s protein content, but even it falls short of the mark.
For those who want to watch their calorie or saturated fat intake, plant-based substitutes may be viable alternatives to whole milk. However, populations that need the considerable nutrients that milk provides, such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly, should think twice before turning to less nutritionally-packed variations. Those deliberating over milk cartons in the dairy aisle should check their nutrition labels before making a selection – their favorite plant-based alternative might not be as healthy as they believe it to be!