Plant milk vs cow milk nutrition comparison

AlmondMilkIf it’s white it must be milk, right?

These days, plenty of white liquids are being labeled “milk”, sometimes with unintended nutritional consequences.  Milk produced by mammals evolved to support the growth of offspring.  Muscle, bone and tissue growth depend on the protein, vitamins and minerals in milk, while milk sugar (lactose) and fat provide the necessary energy.   Milk from cows and other animals – consumed by humans for millennia — have this basic nutrition profile.  Plants milks just have the white color, to mimic cow’s milk.  The similarity stops there.

Why are people buying this stuff?  There are probably as many reasons as there are customers.  Some people are allergic to cow’s milk.  Some people can’t digest the milk sugar lactose.  Some are suspicious of the dairy industry for reasons that range from conspiracy theories to fears about cleanliness or animal welfare.  Some people don’t like the taste.  Some people are vegan and don’t eat any animal-sourced foods.  Another possible reason: calories and fat.  Plant milks tend to be lower calorie and lower fat than whole milk, although obviously buying skim milk would address those concerns.  Coconut milk is almost 60% calories from fat, an even higher percentage than whole milk.

Plant milk is made by grinding or mashing up plant products, like nuts, with water and then filtering out the solids.  The resulting liquid is doctored up with added vitamins or minerals, like calcium, along with sweeteners and flavoring to make it more palatable.  “Milk” can be made from almonds, rice, soybeans and coconut and other plants, handy for people who are allergic to cow’s milk, as well as for vegans and anyone who fears dairy products.  It’s nice to have something white 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”.  This is especially concerning for children who need protein for growth.  Milk made from soy beans is the only plant milk with a protein content close to that of cow’s milk.  For example, a 100 calorie cup of Silk Soy milk has 7 grams of protein; 100 calories of skim milk has almost 10.  Rice, almond and coconut “milks” are very low protein.  Rice Dream has only 1 gram of protein in a 120 calorie cup.  That’s less protein than orange juice.   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?  One cup has 60 calories, but only 1 gram of protein.   And by the way, “all natural evaporated cane juice” frequently used to sweetened up these products — it’s sugar. Table sugar.

If you’re feeding your kid plant milk, thinking it’s 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.

What about all the other nutrients in milk?  Cow’s milk is high calcium, which is a critical nutrient for growth.  Plant-based milks are extremely low calcium.  But now most plant milks are fortified with calcium carbonate, a form of calcium found in many supplement pills.  You could just take a calcium pill with your plain rice milk, but now the thoughtful manufacturers have crushed up that calcium tablet and mixed it into the milk for you.  Most are also fortified with vitamin D and a few other inexpensive vitamins that don’t affect the flavor of the milk.

For adults who who use a plant milk on cereal or in coffee or tea, the nutritional impact might not be as critical, assuming you eat plenty of 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 like legumes and nuts.  Key Take Away Message: just because it’s white doesn’t mean it’s nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.  The only plant milk that’s at all close to the nutrient content of cow’s milk is soy.

If you’re curious about the process for making plant milk, check out this pictorial explanation of almond milk production.

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