Plant Based Milk vs Cow’s Milk: Which is Better?

Plant Based Milk vs Cow’s Milk: Which is Better?

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Milk and dairy products have long been promoted as the best way to get calcium in our diets. Recently, however, there has been a lot of scrutiny about dairy, and like most other trendy nutrition topics, it has become really confusing! In addition to the question about whether or not we should consume cow’s milk, an abundance of milk substitutes has flooded the market, all claiming to be better than cow’s milk. Should we avoid cow’s milk? If so, which substitute should we buy? Read on to learn about plant based milk vs cow’s milk!

Types of Cow’s Milk

There are different choices when purchasing cow’s milk, including various fat percentages, organic, lactose-free, flavored, and raw. Let’s take a look at the differences.

Whole Milk

3.25% milk fat by weight. 150 calories and 8 grams of fat per 1 cup.

Reduced-Fat Milk

2% milk fat by weight. 120 calories and 5 grams of fat per 1 cup.

Low-Fat Milk

1% milk fat by weight. 110 calories and 2.5 grams of fat per 1 cup.

Skim Milk

0% milk fat by weight. 80 calories, and 0 grams of fat per 1 cup.

Organic Milk

Comes from cows that have not been treated with antibiotics, have not been given hormones (for either reproduction or growth), and have been fed at least 30% of their diet on pasture.

Lactose-Free Milk

Free of lactose. Lactose is natural sugar (more specifically, a disaccharide composed of glucose and galactose) found in milk, which is broken down by an enzyme called lactase in our bodies. Some people do not produce any or enough lactase, so some manufacturers will add lactase to the milk to break it down outside of the body. Lactose-free milk tends to taste slightly sweeter than regular milk due to the presence of free glucose.

Flavored Milk

Includes additional ingredients to create flavors such as chocolate (the most popular flavor), strawberry, vanilla, and others. Flavored milks tend to be high in added sugars, so be sure to always read the nutrition facts label before purchasing.

Raw Milk

Raw milk is not pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria. There are safety concerns, so it is not widely available in grocery stores.

Is Milk Healthy?

Regardless of the type you select, milk is a nutrient-rich beverage, boasting 9 essential nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and pantothenic acid. Vitamins A & D are added, but the others are naturally occurring. Essential nutrients are compounds that we must get from food, because our bodies are not capable of making them. 

Milk Benefits

Milk has long been associated with strong bones, and there is good reason for that correlation. The calcium in milk, along with vitamin D, vitamin K, phosphorus, protein, and magnesium help build and sustain strong bones and prevent osteoporosis later in life (1, 2, 3, 4). Dairy is the number one source of calcium in the American diet (5). Although it is possible to get calcium through plant sources such as leafy greens, beans, and nuts, most Americans simply do not eat enough of those foods. In fact, Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of dairy either. Calcium, vitamin D, and potassium are all nutrients of concern meaning that the majority of Americans do not get enough of these nutrients (6). 

Pouring a glass of milk is an easy way to add calcium and high quality protein to your diet – important nutrients for building strong bones and muscles!

Concerns with Cow’s Milk

Although milk appears to have numerous benefits, many people choose not to consume it for a variety of reasons.

  • Allergies: it is estimated that 2-3% of infants are born with a milk allergy (7), although most outgrow it by age six (8). Regardless, if you have a milk allergy, you should not consume milk.
  • Lactose intolerance: It is estimated 36% of Americans and 68% of the world’s population have some degree of lactose intolerance, meaning they lack the enzyme lactase that breaks down the natural lactose sugar found in milk (9). For these individuals, consuming milk can lead to intestinal discomfort. Lactose-free milk is available, but some people prefer other alternatives.
  • Environmental concerns: Dairy cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions and require more land and resources than plants do. Research shows that producing milk alternatives is a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly practice (10).
  • Antibiotics and pesticides: While organic milk seems less likely to contain antibiotics and pesticides, not everyone can afford that option. Antibiotics and pesticides have been found to be prevalent in conventional (non-organic) milk, though the health consequences of these residues are not fully known  (11).
  • Hormones: Cow’s milk contains estrogen and progesterone, so some fear that these hormones can cause cancer and/or lead to early puberty in girls. There is limited research to support these claims (12, 13, 14).
  • Prostate health: Research has shown that men that consume a lot of milk and dairy products are at higher risk of developing prostate cancer (15, 16, 17).
  • Mixed research on bone health: While there is ample evidence that milk can support bone health, there has been some recent research that suggests calcium in milk may not protect against osteoporosis and fractures (18, 19, 20, 21).

Some people choose not to drink milk but still consume other dairy sources, such as cheese, yogurt, and/or kefir. Milk is not a necessary component of a healthy diet, however, it is often the preferred source of dairy (and calcium) for growing children.

Plant Based Milk Alternatives

The milk alternative options seem to be growing almost daily; it’s hard to keep up with the different varieties! Let’s take a look at some of the more popular plant-based milk beverages.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made by soaking soybeans in water. Soymilk contains as much protein as cow’s milk and is rich in disease-fighting isoflavones. Additionally, soy milk is fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals to make it comparable to cow’s milk. Some people express concern over soy intake and increased breast cancer risk, but research does not support this hypothesis (22, 23).

Nut Milks

Nut milks are made by soaking nuts in water. There are a lot of varieties with different consistencies, calorie contents, and nutrients (almond, cashew, macadamia, pecan, walnut). There are some nut milk producers that use more nuts, avoid filler ingredients, and do not fortify their products with vitamins and minerals. The nutritional differences between the pure nut milks and the other formulas is quite significant, making it difficult to offer generalizations about the nutrient profile. Take a look at this comparison of a pure almond milk and one with “extras”.

8-ounce servingPure Almond MilkUnsweetened Almond
Milk + Extras
Calories130 kcal30 kcal
Total Fat11 g2.5 g
Saturated Fat1 g0 g
Trans Fat0 g0 g
Cholesterol0 g0 g
Sodium5 mg170 mg
Total Carbohydrate3 g1 g
Dietary Fiber0 g1 g
Total Sugars1 g0 g
Added Sugars0 g0 g
Protein5 g1 g
Vitamin D0%25%
Calcium0%35%
Iron6%4%
Potassium4%4%
IngredientsFiltered water,
almonds
Filtered water, almonds, calcium carbonate, sea salt,
potassium citrate,
sunflower lecitin, gellan gum, natural flavors, Vitamin A palmitate, Vitamin D2, D-alpha-tocopherol (natural Vitamin E)
Pure almond milk vs, standard almond milk

The pure almond milk made with more almonds is higher in calories, healthy fats, and protein. The almond milk with “extras” is lower in calories, fat, and protein, but higher in sodium. Unlike the pure almond milk, it is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. So which one is better? That largely depends on its use.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is made by soaking oats in water. It is naturally creamy, high in carbohydrates, contains fiber, and maintains some of the vitamins and minerals found in oats.

Coconut Milk Beverage

This is made from simmering shredded coconut in water and then diluting with more water. Coconut milk beverage, not to be confused with canned coconut milk, is low in calories, higher in saturated fat than other alternatives, and contains no protein.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is made from milled rice and water. It is naturally sweeter than other milk alternatives, high in carbohydrates, and contains almost no protein.

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is made from soaking hemp seeds in water. It naturally contains calcium, protein, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Pea Milk

Pea milk is made from yellow split peas soaked in water. It is creamy and contains the same protein content as milk, but most options contain many additive ingredients.

Plant Milk Benefits

Plant milks offer both environmental and nutritional benefits. Plants used in alternative milk beverages require less land, water, fertilizer, and energy than cows (24). 

For people seeking to follow a more plant forward diet, plant milks offer a good alternative to cow’s milk, although they are not completely nutritionally comparable. Plant milks are typically lower in saturated fat and calories than cow’s milk and provide some of the nutritional benefits of the whole plants themselves.

Plant milks are also a good option for those who have milk allergies or lactose intolerance.

Concerns with Plant Based Milk

Just like with cow’s milk, there are concerns with plant based milks. 

  • Nutritional Gaps: nutritional content varies between each plant based milk, but soy milk is the only one that truly compares to cow’s milk. If cow’s milk is a normal part of your diet and you replace it with a plant-based milk (other than soy milk), you will not be getting the same quantity and types of nutrients as before. (25). This is very important to keep in mind when subbing plant based milk for kids. 
  • Price: Do a quick Google search or go down the plant based milk aisle of your grocery store, and you will quickly notice that plant based milk prices can be significantly higher than cow’s milk. Some types are less expensive than others, so choose the one that works for your budget.
  • Filler Ingredients: A lot of plant based milks have filler ingredients, thickeners, natural flavors, etc. That’s not to say that all of these are bad, but we recommend sticking to ingredients that you can recognize as much as possible. 
  • Added Sugars: Sugar is added to a lot of plant based milks to increase sweetness and improve palatability. Choose unsweetened versions for optimal health.

Plant Based Milk vs Cow’s Milk: Nutrient Comparison

Now that we have discussed pros and cons of both cow’s milk and plant based milks, let’s take a look at the different “milks” side-by-side. Nutrition information is based on 1 cup (8 ounces) and was pulled from USDA’s nutrient database and a few popular brand websites. Vitamins and minerals that were added during processing (vs. naturally occurring) are highlighted.

NutrientsWhole MilkSkim MilkSoy MilkAlmond MilkOat MilkCoconut MilkRice MilkHemp MilkPea Milk
Calories150 kcal80 kcal80 kcal30 kcal90 kcal40 kcal120 kcal60 kcal70 kcal
Total Fat8 g0 g4 g2.5 g1.5 g4 g2.5 g4.5 g4.5 g
Saturated Fat5 g0 g.5 g0 g0 g3 g0 g0 g0 g
Sodium120 mg100 mg75 mg125 mg120 mg45 mg100 mg110 mg110 mg
Carbohydrates12 g12 g3 g1 g19 g1 g23 g0 g<1 g
Dietary Fiber0 g0 g2 g<1 g2 g0 g0 g0 g<1 g
Total Sugars12 g12 g1 g0 g4 g0 g10 g0 g0 g
Added Sugar0 g0 g0 g0 g4 g0 g0 g0 g0 g
Protein8 g8 g7 g1 g2 g0 g1 g3 g8 g
Calcium28%30%20%30%25%35%30%20%35%
Folate3%3%10%      
Iron1%1%6%2%2%2%4%10%0%
Magnesium6%7%8%2%   15% 
Phosphorus21%25%6%   15%  
Potassium9%10%7%2%8%6%1%2%10%
Riboflavin24%26%30% 10%    
Vitamin A11%10%15%15%20%20%10% 10%
Vitamin B1218%20%120% 10%35%25% 100%
Vitamin D31%29%15%10%20%10%25%10%30%
Vitamin E   25% 20%   
Plant Based Milk vs Cow’s Milk: Nutrient Comparison

Things to Note:

  • Cow’s milk, soy milk, and pea milk provide the most protein.
  • Soy milk is the most comparable to cow’s milk.
  • Coconut milk and almond milk are lowest in calories.
  • Oat milk and rice milk are highest in carbohydrates.
  • Cow’s milk contains the highest amount of natural sugars.
  • The plant based milks are fortified with nutrients to try to better match cow’s milk.

Which Milk is Best?

Sorry to say it, but there actually isn’t a clear winner! The answer totally depends on your individual dietary needs, restrictions, concerns, budget, and application. 

The biggest consideration is how you incorporate it in your diet. Remember that most plant based milks are not nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk, so if you drink milk daily as a primary source of protein and calcium, but you want to switch to a plant based option, choose one that is a good source of those nutrients. If you simply use milk with your cereal or a splash in your tea, the type of milk matters less. 

Although they both provide essential nutrients, cow’s milk and/or plant based milks are not actually essential in our diets. You can choose to drink either or neither! A varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein (including dairy foods!) will provide the nutrition you need.

Which type of milk does a registered dietitian drink?

If you open my refrigerator, you will find an assortment of milks and milk alternatives. I have cow’s milk for cooking and as a drink option for my 19-month and 4-year-old boys, cashew milk for smoothies and overnight oats, and canned coconut milk for Indian/Pakistani and Thai curries. For many recipes, plant based milks just don’t substitute well for cow’s milk. Personally, I don’t actually drink any of these milks, except for a splash in my tea. However, I do consume kefir, yogurt, and cheese as sources of dairy and find that these leave me feeling nourished and satisfied. Whatever your needs, preferences, and health goals, figure out what works best for you! 

To YOUR Taste!

Chef V

Vahista Ussery, MS, MBA, RDN

Vahista Ussery, MS, MBA, RDN

Chef Vahista is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist/Chef. She is one of the founders of To Taste and is passionate about educating individuals and communities about nutrition principles and culinary skills.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lyric Lain

    Interesting post! My daughter is a huge milk drinker. We tend to buy organic whole milk for drinking in order to minimize hormones from the cow’s milk. We also substitute almond milk sometimes. We prefer the taste to soy and have read a lot regarding GMO soy beans. I also like to cook with heavy whipping cream. I wonder how that compares.

    1. Vahista Ussery

      Sorry for my late reply! What we have to watch with both whole milk and whipping cream is the saturated fat content. If you limit saturated fat normally in your diet, than you can probably afford to drink whole milk, which is 3.5% fat. Heavy whipping cream is about 30-36% fat (eek!), so we definitely want to limit its use. I honestly like to use heavy whipping cream every now and then in recipes as well-it’s hard to beat that level of creaminess!

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