Milk Wars: Cow vs. Plant – Which is Healthier?

A deep dive into the nutritional profiles of many types of milks on the market.
By Mariah Xzena Briones, RMT
Certification Specialist
Milk has been a dietary staple for centuries, providing essential nutrients for growth and overall health; however, in recent years, the rise of plant-based milk alternatives has sparked a debate about which type of milk is truly the healthiest choice. To find the answer, let’s dive into the nutritional aspects of cow’s milk and plant-based milk to examine their pros and cons.

Cow's Milk: A Nutrient Powerhouse

Cow’s milk has long been cherished for its impressive nutritional profile. It’s a rich source of high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and various essential minerals. These nutrients play crucial roles in bone health, muscle development, and overall immune function. Additionally, cow’s milk contains healthy fats that are essential for brain health.

Types of Cow's Milk:

  • Regular Cow’s Milk: Standard cow’s milk offers essential vitamins and nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, protein, vitamin A, and vitamin D. According to Dena Champion, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, it is advisable to opt for pasteurized milk when selecting cow’s milk products. Pasteurization eliminates potentially harmful germs, reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses, particularly for vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

  • A2 Milk: A2 milk has gained popularity in recent years and is now widely available. It distinguishes itself from A1 milk by containing primarily A2 beta-casein protein. While some claim that A2 milk is easier to digest, there’s limited scientific evidence to support this assertion. From a nutritional standpoint, A2 milk doesn’t differ significantly from regular cow’s milk.

  • Lactose-Free Milk: Lactose-free milk, available in various fat levels, typically adds lactase enzymes to aid digestion for individuals who are lactose intolerant or experience discomfort from consuming regular cow’s milk.

  • Low-Fat Milk: Low-fat milk is a suitable choice for calorie-conscious individuals who still prefer cow’s milk. A cup of low-fat milk provides 106 calories, 8 grams of protein, and 3 micrograms of vitamin D. Dietitian Sara Riehm recommends 1% and skim milk for those seeking low-saturated fat options rich in protein and calcium.

Plant-Based Milk Alternatives: A Growing Trend

Plant-based milk alternatives, such as almond, soy, and oat milk, have gained popularity among individuals with lactose intolerance, vegans, and those seeking dairy-free options. These milks are often fortified with vitamins and minerals to mimic the nutrient content of cow’s milk. Let’s first review some of the different types of plant-based milks available in the market today:

  • Almond Milk: Almond milk is characterized by its smooth, creamy texture and low carbohydrate and calorie content. It’s essential to opt for unsweetened or lightly sweetened varieties to avoid excess added sugar.

  • Banana Milk: Banana milk, a nutritious dairy alternative, offers vitamins, minerals, potassium, and natural sweetness from bananas. It is low in carbs, almost fat-free, and contains calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, making it an attractive choice for individuals managing blood sugar and seeking a healthier dairy milk alternative.

  • Cashew Milk: Cashew milk’s creamy texture closely resembles traditional cow’s milk. While homemade versions may lack calcium, store-bought options are usually fortified to provide about 30% of the daily value of calcium.

  • Coconut Milk: Coconut milk is creamy and coconut-flavored but doesn’t match the nutritional profile of cow or soy milk due to higher saturated fat content.

  • Flax Milk: Made from flaxseeds, flax milk has an earthy, nutty flavor and offers omega-3 fatty acids, making it a great choice for brain health, heart health, and inflammation reduction. It is low in sugar and cholesterol-free, suitable for those watching calories or following a vegan diet.

  • Oat Milk: Oat milk is known for its smooth, creamy texture, making it ideal for coffee, cooking, and baking. Some versions may contain a small amount of sunflower oil to achieve the creamy texture, and it generally has more calories than other plant-based milks.

  • Soy Milk: Soy milk is a popular option with health benefits, including essential nutrients like vitamin B, magnesium, zinc, and folate. It may also be fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

  • Quinoa Milk: Quinoa milk has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor and is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, making it a nutrient-dense choice.

  • Walnut Milk: Walnut milk has a distinctive flavor, often described as reminiscent of maple and toasted walnuts. It is a good source of protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids but is relatively high in fat and low in calcium.

Variability in Nutritional Content

One of the most significant differences found in plant-based milk is the lower protein content. Cow’s milk contains approximately 8 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving, while many plant-based alternatives averaged around 2 grams, with soy milk being a notable exception. Experts suggest that this lower protein content might not be a cause for concern, as most people already obtain sufficient protein from various sources in their diets. Another area of difference was in calcium and vitamin D. While some plant-based milks were fortified with these nutrients, it varies widely between brands and types. Oat milk emerged as a leader in terms of calcium and vitamin D fortification, with 76% of oat-based milks containing both nutrients. For those seeking these specific nutrients, reading the label becomes crucial to ensure that a particular plant-based milk product meets their dietary requirements.

Saturated Fat and Omega Fatty Acids

Plant-based milks tend to have lower levels of saturated fat compared to cow’s milk. Saturated fat is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, making plant-based options a healthier choice for some individuals concerned about their heart health. Additionally, certain plant-based milks, such as soy milk, contain essential fatty acids like omega-6 and omega-3, which can benefit heart health and cholesterol levels.

Added Sugars

Consumers should also be cautious about added sugars in plant-based milk. Some brands use added sugars to enhance the flavor of their products, leading to sugar levels comparable to flavored cow’s milk. Checking the nutrition label for added sugars is essential, especially for those aiming to reduce sugar intake.

The Best Milk for You

Choosing the right milk for your needs depends on your dietary preferences, health goals, and nutritional requirements. Cow’s milk remains a nutrient-dense option, offering essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. For those concerned about saturated fat and cholesterol, low-fat or fat-free cow’s milk is recommended.

Soy milk stands out among plant-based alternatives, offering a similar nutrient profile to cow’s milk. It’s high in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, and potassium, making it a suitable substitute for those who prefer a dairy-free option.

Almond milk is a popular choice due to its creamy texture and low-calorie content. However, be cautious of added sugars in sweetened varieties. Unsweetened almond milk can be an excellent option for those seeking a low-calorie alternative.

Ultimately, the choice between cow’s milk and plant-based milk comes down to personal preferences and dietary requirements. Whether you’re lactose intolerant, following a vegan diet, or simply looking for a change, there are plenty of milk options available. Just remember to read labels carefully to ensure that your chosen milk aligns with your nutritional needs.

As the popularity of plant-based milk continues to rise, consumers should remember that while these alternatives offer various benefits, they may not always be a one-to-one nutritional match for cow’s milk. It’s essential to consider individual dietary goals, allergies, and health factors when making the best milk choice for you and your family. Regardless of your preference, a well-rounded diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods is the key to maintaining optimal health.

Sources & More Information:

Devarakonda, Mythili, “Milk comparison: Which is healthiest? Which helps weight loss? Which has the most protein?” https://chicago.suntimes.com/2023/2/3/23531435/milk-healthiest-weight-loss-nutrition

Hull, Kate “New research says cow’s milk is better for you than oat milk or other plant-based vegan alternatives” https://www.insider.com/cows-milk-more-nutritious-than-plant-vegan-milk-2023-7

Lamotte, Sandee, “Good or bad? Plant-based and cow’s milk are not always nutritionally equal, study says” https://edition.cnn.com/2023/07/25/health/plant-milk-nutrition-labels-wellness/index.html

Seaver, Maggie “Most Plant-Based Milks Have Less Protein, Calcium, and Vitamin D Than Cow’s Milk, Study Finds” https://www.realsimple.com/plant-based-milks-have-fewer-nutrients-than-cow-milk-7852435

Southey, Flora “Plant-based milk less nutritious than cow’s milk, finds research” https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2023/07/26/plant-based-milk-less-nutritious-than-cow-s-milk-finds-research?utm_source=copyright&utm_medium=OnSite&utm_campaign=copyright

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