Plant milks vs. cow’s milk

Sales of alternative milks are growing, so it’s worth looking at the nutritional impact of these products compared to cow’s milk, which is still the most widely consumed.  Milk produced by animals is intended as nutrition for growing offspring.  Growth of muscle, bone and tissue depends on protein, vitamins and minerals, with milk sugar (lactose) and fat for energy needs.  Milk from cows or goats or other mammals has this nutrition profile.  Plants, on the other hand, do not create milk for their offspring.  Plant-based alternative “milks” are made by grinding or mashing up plant products with water, and then filtering out the liquid.  It helps if the resulting liquid is white in color, to mimic cow’s milk.  Vitamins or minerals, like calcium, are typically added to the white-ish plant liquid, along with sugar syrup to make it more palatable.

You can now buy “milk” made from almonds, rice, soybeans and coconut.  This is a happy solution for people who are allergic to cow’s milk, as well as vegans and anyone who fears dairy products for some personal reason.  It’s nice to have something to put on cereal or into coffee.  What could be wrong with this?

The biggest nutritional problem is the extremely low protein content of many of these “milks”.  Soy beans have more protein than rice, and soy milk is higher in protein than rice “milk”, but less than cow’s milk.  A 100 calorie cup of Silk Soy milk has 7 grams of protein; 100 calories of skim milk has almost 10.  And by the way, “all natural evaporated cane juice” = sugar.  Table sugar.

Rice, Almond and Coconut “milks” are even worse in terms of protein content.  Rice Dream has only 1 grams in a 120 calorie cup.  A cup of coconut “milk” beverage (not to be confused with coconut milk in a can in the Asian foods aisle) has 90 calories and only 1 gram of protein.  Almond milk?  Almonds are nuts, so it must be high protein, right?  Wrong.  One cup has 60 calories, but only 1 gram of protein.  And by the way, “evaporated cane juice”  means sugar syrup.  Table sugar.

So if you’re feeding your kid alternative milks, thinking they’re equivalent to cow’s milk, think again.  Your kid is filling up on what is essentially a creamy low protein high carbohydrate sugar-sweetened soft drink.  Unless your child has significant protein intake from other foods, switching to alternative milks is likely to cut protein intake.  For children, protein is essential for proper growth, so cutting protein intake is not a great idea.  The only alternative milk that’s nutritionally close to cow’s milk is soy.

For adults using plant “milks” on cereal or in coffee or tea, the nutritional impact of switching to a low protein product shouldn’t be as critical, assuming you eat other high protein foods.  But if you’re vegan, protein intake can be an issue, so unless your choice is soy milk, you need to pay attention to other protein sources.  Just because something is called “milk” doesn’t mean it’s nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.  And by the way, evaporated cane juice is added sugar.  No different from table sugar or corn syrup.

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