By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
For the past 15 years, plant-based “milk” beverages have offered alternatives to dairy milk, which originates from animals.
While those choosing plant-based beverages may have different reasons for selecting them — including lactose intolerance, allergy to milk protein, vegan lifestyle or concerns about animal welfare — milk offers more nutrition compared with alternative beverages, according to local experts.
For someone who is allergic to dairy milk or lactose intolerant, drinking milk can bring significant gastrointestinal discomfort. Milk is among the top eight food allergens, according to the US Department of Agriculture. For people able to drink milk who are looking strictly at the nutritional profile, milk is a far better beverage than its alternatives, according to sources interviewed for this story.
“The nut, bean, coconut and oat milks fall short in certain nutritional aspects,” said Laurel Sterling, registered dietitian, nutritionist and educator with Carlson Laboratories in Canastota.
Protein is the biggest difference. One eight-ounce serving of milk contains eight grams of protein that’s biologically complete so that the body can readily use it. It’s even better than beef.
Plant-based alternatives contain vegetable-based protein, which isn’t as readily absorbable as milk’s protein.
Milk also contains naturally occurring magnesium, manganese and zinc.
“Nut, bean and oat milks have fiber, where dairy doesn’t,” Sterling said. “They have less saturated fat, if someone’s watching that for health reasons.”
While plant-based beverages may seem a nutritious choice, they don’t contain the same nutrients as their sources because they’re highly processed. Many of the nutrients in nuts, for example, don’t end up in nut-based beverages.
Milk includes naturally occurring calcium and also vitamin B-12, which is hard to find in a plant-based food except for nutritional yeast. Nearly every brand of milk is fortified with vitamins A and D.
Coconut alternatives contain little protein but have been touted for improving the metabolism; however, since it contains high levels of saturated fat, it shouldn’t be a go-to milk.
Nut-based beverages do represent good sources of polyunsaturated fats, and are sources of vitamins A and E. Hemp beverages provide omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium.
Alternatives boasting a similar nutrient panel as milk are fortified with supplements.
“It’s better to get nutrients in food itself rather than through supplement,” said Julie Mellen, registered dietitian and nutrition counselor with Upstate Medical University. “The different milksare all good for their own reasons. The big thing is to look out for beyond protein is the sugars added to these products.”
Among plant-based milk alternatives, rice milk contains less sugar than others but it shouldn’t be consumed exclusively because of the FDA’s warning about the levels of arsenic absorbed by rice.
Since many non-dairy milk alternatives contain sweeteners, those looking for the most healthful beverage should look at milk again. It contains no added sugar, unless it’s a flavored milk such as chocolate or strawberry. Milk does contain lactose, which is the natural, inherent sugar that causes problems for those who are lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive.
Mellen said that for people who don’t like milk or have an allergy or sensitivity, soy is the closest to milk for nutrients such as protein.
Milk alternatives usually boast fewer calories than milk. Skim milk contains 90 calories, compared with the 30 to 40 calories in plant-based beverages.
U.S. milk is highly regulated for safety concerns. Milk sold commercially must be pasteurized, which kills any bacteria. But before it even leaves the farm, all milk is tested for bacteria and antibiotics. Any batch found contaminated is thrown away, as mandated by law.
Some non-organic farmers use rBST, a synthetic growth hormone, to help cows produce more milk. The hormone is specific to species, meaning it doesn’t affect humans drinking the milk. Pasteurization destroys 90 percent of any traces of the hormone present in milk and the rest is broken down during digestion.
The Food and Drug Administration has deemed the use of rBST with dairy cattle as safe and their stance has been approved by National Institutes of Health, World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization and American Medical Association.
Though organic milk bears an identical nutritional panel as traditionally produced milk, grass-fed milk offers higher levels of beneficial omega-three fatty acids. Grass-fed herds also have access to pasture in season.
“You want to get calcium in some way,” Mellen said. “It’s a good thing to include the recommended serving per day, which is three servings.”