Cow's milk vs plant based milks, nutritionally speaking

Cow’s Milk vs Plant based Milks, Nutritionally Speaking

With the rise of plant based milks in our supermarkets, seems cow’s milk is less popular than ever these days; consumption rates have dropped significantly in the last 20 years. There are many reasons for this including links with skin health, taste, allergies, lactose intolerance, ethics and the rise in popularity of alternatives.

Making plant based milks is similar to the juicing process. They are usually made by grinding the base source for example; soybeans, nuts, rice, oats, hemp seed etc and combining with filtered water. The taste, texture and consistency can then be altered with various additives, whilst the nutritive value can be fortified with nutrients.

I’m often asked which milk is best and nutritionally speaking, there are certainly differences between them.

Dairy is often hailed as being crucial to a healthy balanced diet and plant based milks as alternatives struggle to compete with traditional cow’s milk, mainly due to the difference in protein as well as other nutrients.

Let’s look at why cow’s milk has been so popular until now….

  • It is a good source of bio-available calcium that is essential for bone health. In other words, the calcium is in a form that is recognised by the body and easily absorbed. Cutting out cow’s milk in adolescence through to adulthood, can significantly reduce the intake of calcium resulting in brittle bones over time
  • It is a first class source of protein, essential for muscle repair as well as the production of enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones
  • It is rich in nutrients rich in phosphorus, potassium, iodine and vitamin B12
  • In the UK, one of the main sources of iodine comes from cow’s milk and dairy products. We need iodine to make Thyroid hormones and without it, thyroid health is compromised.

Plant based milks do not offer anywhere near the level of nutrients available in cow’s milk and will need to be fortified by manufacturers to ensure adequate nutrients as a good alternative to milk.

So which of the plant based milks are the best cow’s milk alternative?

Unsweetened

plant based milks

In Comparison with 240ml serving of Cow’s milk

Soya Milk
  • Nutritionally the most similar, so probably the best alternative
  • Does not contain cow’s protein or lactose – good for those with an intolerance to these
  • Similar macronutrient profile; protein, carbohydrate & fat
  • Less calcium, iodine & B vits. Buying fortified versions advised
  • Lower calorie count than cow’s milk but higher calorie count than other plant based alternatives; almond, coconut & hemp
  • Contains isoflavones, plant-based oestrogens that can have an adverse effect on hormone balance and has been linked with some cancers, including breast cancer
  • Is not naturally sweet therefore sugar often added. Look out for unsweetened versions
  • Can contain thickeners to improve texture and shelf-life
Hemp Milk
  • Seeds themselves are a good source of omega-3s, fibre and other nutrients but hemp milk may not offer same value
  • In the milk, these have been lost
  • High protein
  • Good source of good fats – creamy taste
  • Good choice
Oat Milk
  • Source of soluble fibre; beta-glucans which are good for reducing bad cholesterol in the blood
  • Need large quantities to get these benefits
  • Contains more B vitamins than soya or coconut milk and good alternative for those with allergies
  • Low in protein and other vitamins & minerals. Choose a fortified version if possible
Almond Milk
  • Whole almonds are rich in protein and good fats but as a milk do not offer these same benefits
  • Usually only 2% almonds and can contain starches and thickeners to improve texture, consistency and shelf-life
  • Very low in protein
  • Low in calories and if fortified significantly can boost calcium, vitamin D and B vits
  • Many on the market are made up of almonds, salt & water only – not fortified
  • Ethically, cultivating almonds uses huge quantities of water. With it’s rise in popularity, this puts further environmental pressure on precious water supplies
Coconut Milk
  • Low in calories
  • Sweet and palatable, often due to added sugar
  • Virtually no protein; cannot compare with cow’s or soya milk
  • Most of the calories are due to fat (coconut cream), although they are Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFs) which are a good fat in terms of energy source
  • More diluted than the version used in cooking; made from grated mature coconut flesh and combined with filtered water
  • Often contains thickeners and other ingredients
  • Does not contain calcium, vitamin D or vitamin A. Must be fortified if using as an alternative
Rice Milk
  • Similar calorie count to cow’s milk
  • Very low protein
  • Not natural source of calcium or vitamin D – needs to be fortified
  • More sugar (due to carbohydrate content) than cow’s milk
  • High levels of arsenic due to the production process can pose a health risk; best avoided for infants, children pregnant women
  • Good alternative if allergic to soy or nuts

 

These delicious gluten free pancakes, made with almond milk, are packed with nutrients and highly nutritious. The delicate nutty flavour of the buckwheat pairs well with so many toppings. A guaranteed winner and a perfect healthy indulgence! Recipe included in this Healthy Snack Guide DOWNLOAD HERE

Protein rich Cinnamon Buckwheat Ricotta Pancakes May Simpkin Nutrition

The Ultimate Healthy Indulgence!

 

The Bottom Line

Choose a milk that you enjoy and like the taste of, that has been fortified to ensure adequate calcium – as close to 140g per 100ml as possible and other nutrients as far as possible.

 

The problem with making your own…

Making your own is fine as a one off, but if you’ve given up dairy and replacing it with plant based alternatives, the homemade version will not be fortified with calcium, vitamins D and B. Although it is certainly cheaper and there is freedom to use a much higher percentage of the base ingredient, the lack of fortification is very important to bear in mind.

 

Consider your life-stage….

Choosing the right milk to suit your needs is crucial. For example, the key development years; for example; toddlers, teens and pregnancy will have high protein, vitamin D and calcium requirements – all abundant in cow’s milk. Those watching calories can consider other lower calories options, whilst those approaching or in menopause will need to avoid disruption of hormone balance.

Getting adequate calcium is often the worry when it comes to going dairy-free and therefore opting for a fortified plant based version will ensure good levels and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis in later life.

NOTE: This blog posts accompanies a FAcebook Live video – Find it here

Nutritional Nugget

Organic vs Non-Organic Cow’s Milk?

Organic cow’s milk is produced with better animal welfare in mind and without the use of pesticides. The nutritional profile of organic milk will depend upon the feed the cows are offered and generally considered superior, with some studies suggesting organic milk  contained 50% more omega-3 fatty acids and higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and other nutrients. Organic whole milk often contains 4 per cent fat or more, a higher level than standardised whole milk. However, studies have also suggested that organic milk had lower levels of iodine, needed by the body to produce the thyroid hormones and selenium, a powerful antioxidant that protects against cell damage. For the full report, CLICK HERE

 

You may like to watch this Facebook Live session where I covered the topic to accompany this post

If you’re considering which milk is best with your morning coffee, the good news is that recent studies have shown that up to 3-4 cups per day are deemed safe to consume! READ MORE

 

So, will you be making a different choice? What’s your favourite milk? Do let me know in the comments below

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5 comments

  • Jolanta Waugh 24th March 2018   Reply →

    Great article!

    What do you think about about LactoFree Milk?
    My son, age 5 is lactose intolerant, very gassy and the gas is very “potent”.
    As I am worried about him not getting enough calcium and nutrients. Also I don’t feel comfortable with too much soya because of the influence on his hormonal balance.

    What would you advice?

    • May Simpkin 3rd April 2018   Reply →

      If your son is allergic to Lactose, then he will need to consider a lactose free milk. If he isn’t, it is important to get to the bottom of why he is getting symptoms. You would need to look at his full diet and any other contributing factors. I suggest a full consultation with my Health Improvement Programme as it does need to be personalised.

  • Jenny Reid 8th April 2018   Reply →

    This is such a helpful article, thank you so much for clarifying the differences so easily. Your weekly emails are so clear and thorough and i really value your advice.

    I have just watched a Countryfile and. I have been reminded of how pure cow’s milk is. Having read about the artificial ways that other “milks” are made, it makes me think i should go back to it. i switched to almond milk in porridge and on my cereals as I had understood that it was better than cow’s milk, although I don’t have an intolerance. I do worry about the calcium levels though (and osteoporosis risk). I am 42.

    My 2 questions are:
    1. if i don’t have a dairy intolerance, should I switch back to (organic) dairy?
    2. is it true that skimmed milk has the same calcium levels as full fat? if so, is this the best option to keep calories down, or are there benefits of full fat?

    Thank you so much!

    • May Simpkin 8th April 2018   Reply →

      Hi Jenny – thank you so much for your kind comments and I am so pleased you find my work helpful. With regards to your questions, I do feel that there is a place for cow’s milk, if we are to consider the nutritional benefits specifically. As I mention in the video, unless you have an allergy, then there is no reason to avoid it. It has the highest amount of protein when compared to the other milk alternatives, which not only fulfils your body’s protein needs (not only hair, skin & nails but also making, more crucially enzymes, hormones & neurotransmitters), but also keeps you fuller for longer. Skimmed milk does have a similar calcium content but there is no reason to avoid the fat, which also has plenty of health benefits, including providing fat soluble vitamins A, D, E & K. Even full fat milk is only 4% fat, which is hardly anything! I personally choose semi-skimmed simply because I prefer the taste! Hope this helps?

      • Jenny Reid 23rd April 2018   Reply →

        Thank you May, it really does!
        I’ve just seen your video on cooking with fats, again so helpful.

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