When ‘milk’ is not milk – a look into plant based milk alternatives


Do non-dairy milks such as almond and soy milk have the same nutrition value as cow’s milk? Read the facts to find out.

Cow’s milk was first consumed by humans 10,000 years ago in what is now known as Afghanistan and Iran, making it one of humanity’s first foods. With the use and benefits of cow’s milk well established, it’s not surprising alternatives have come into the market to try and piggyback on its success.

The popularity of plant-based drinks has increased over the past few years, with consumers choosing drinks made with things like almonds for a variety of reasons. They can be part of a healthy balanced diet, but it’s important to have all the information when choosing your preference. 

Cow’s milk vs milk alternatives

Non-milk alternatives typically name themselves after their protein source (soy, rice, almond etc) but actually contain only small amounts of these ingredients in the final product.

A glass of cow's milk contains high-quality protein and more naturally occurring nutrients such as calcium and phosphorous. Milk alternatives can be highly processed and typically have added sugar. In addition, the levels of vitamins and minerals can vary considerably from product to product.

A 2018 survey by US-based Dairy Management Inc of more than 2000 people involving those that only drink milk, those that only drink plant-based alternatives and those who use both, found that consumers expect products labelled as ‘milk’ to be comparable to dairy milk in terms of nutrition. More than 20% associated almond and soy ‘milk’ with dairy milk. Among those who drink both dairy milk and plant-based alternatives, 30% associated plant-based alternatives with dairy milk. And, in terms of key drivers for purchase, 62% of those that only use plant-based alternatives said it was because of nutrition and 65% because of health benefits.


Nutrition value of dairy milk

The reality of those perceptions is quite the opposite. Cow’s milk is one ingredient from a totally natural source and is minimally processed. Most plant-based alternatives include multiple added ingredients including sugars, oils and fortified vitamins and minerals.

The perceived environmental benefits of plant-based drinks are a key driver for some people, but it’s important to understand the whole picture. For example, almond ‘milk’ production can have a much higher environmental footprint than dairy through extensive water use and carbon emissions. There’s also very limited evidence because few scientific life cycle analysis studies have taken place on these products, so claims are made without proof.


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