How milk compares to plant-based beverages 

Every year, there are different types of plant-based beverages arriving on supermarket shelves. But how do these plant-based beverage compare to cow’s milk? 

“Milk is naturally full of goodness, and it simply tastes delicious,” says Laura Anderson, Head of Nutrition. “It’s hard to compete with what milk has to offer. Plant based beverages don’t naturally give you the same unique nutrient bundle, and they can’t match the smooth creamy taste. Plus, plant-based beverages are almost always more expensive.” 

Plant-based beverages are highly processed and generally more expensive than milk – but most importantly do not deliver the same level of nutrition.  

Plant based beverages can’t match milk’s unique nutrient bundle

Milk is minimally processed  

Fresh milk is minimally processed: collected from a farm, heat treated, possibly standardised, and homogenised to provide a consistent product.  

Plant-based beverages undergo further processing. Their production process often includes heating, crushing, centrifuging and enzymatic alteration, creating a finished product that is primarily made up of water, additives and other ingredients, with only a small amount of the named plant included. 

Additives and other ingredients often include

  • Sugar 
  • Vegetable oils
  • Synthetically produced vitamins 
  • Emulsifiers such as carrageenan and lecithin
  • Starch based thickeners
  • Salt

Typically, the only ingredient in milk is milk. By contrast, the typical glass of an almond based alternative might include “filtered water, whole almonds, raw sugar, calcium phosphate, sunflower lecithin, sea salt, vegetable gum and natural flavour”.  

Milk’s natural goodness is extremely hard to replicate – even with extra fortification, plant-based beverages find it difficult to match the overall nutritional profile of milk.

Laura Anderson, Global Head of Nutrition, fonterra

Plant based beverages can’t match milk’s unique nutrient bundle

“There’s no plant-based beverage that can deliver the same nutrient bundle as milk,” explains Laura. “Milk’s natural goodness is extremely hard to replicate – even with extra fortification, plant-based beverages find it difficult to match the overall nutritional profile of milk.” 

The nutrients contained in plant-based beverages vary depending on what they are made with and how they are fortified. When compared to unfortified plant-based beverages, milk generally has:

 

Milk also has higher bioavailability of many of these nutrients when compared to plant-based beverages. For example, although plant-based beverages are often fortified with calcium, solubility and digestibility issues mean that they can deliver less calcium than milk

Amino acid bioavailability is also lower, making it a considerable challenge to match the natural goodness of milk by consuming plant-based beverages. Milk has all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. In comparison, plant-based beverages have varying amounts of different amino acids with soy having the closest profile to milk.

Protein and calcium don’t naturally disperse throughout most plant-based beverages. This means that when these drinks aren’t shaken, a nutrient sediment can form at the bottom of the container. Consumed without shaking, protein content is up to 95% lower and calcium content is up to 65% lower. Milk doesn’t need to be shaken – every sip of milk contains a wide range of macro and micronutrients to support a healthy body. 

In addition to the micronutrients, milk contains bioactives such as bioactive peptides, complex milk lipids and milk oligosaccarides which help to form the unique dairy matrix and provide further health benefits. 

Plant based beverages are typically more expensive

Milk is an accessible source of essential nutrients for people around the world. Not only is it widely available, but it provides nutrients in a way that can be more cost-effective than plant-based alternative. In the US diet for example, milk
has been found to be the least expensive source of calcium, and the second least expensive source of magnesium, potassium and vitamin A. 

Plant based beverages are, on average, more expensive than milk. In
one New Zealand study, milk had a protein cost of 8c per gram, compared to 63c for an almond-based alternative, 79c for coconut, 59c for oat and $1.08 for rice. In this instance, protein from almond beverages was around eight times as expensive as protein from milk.

Costs are also higher in other major markets:

Milk is simply delicious 

When you ask people why they buy milk, the number one reason is taste

Beyond the natural goodness of milk and its nutritional value for money, there is no substitute for its delicious flavour. Milk has naturally occurring lactose that makes it slightly sweet, as well as rich and smooth. It froths perfectly in your morning latte, gives creaminess to your porridge, and makes your baking tender and flavourful. 

Blind taste testing has found consumers can
easily identify milk in blind taste tests when it’s put up against plant-based beverages. When consumers taste test milk and various plant-based beverages, they prefer the flavour of milk. 

“Nothing else tastes like milk,” Laura says. “Milk is naturally sweet, smooth, creamy, and delicious. Humans have been consuming milk for thousands of years – it’s a staple of traditional diets around the globe and a big reason is that we really enjoy drinking it. Beyond its nutritional advantages and its accessibility, milk just tastes fantastic.”