Have you read any articles or stories touting the benefits of plant-based diets lately? Plant-based diets have been growing in popularity, along with dairy-free diets, too. And while these diets are fairly different, they have one major overlap: non-dairy milk! For many, milk is a major staple in our diets, and it’s hard to imagine cutting it out completely. After all, for some – we’ve been drinking it since birth! The good news is that people who are trying to cut back on dairy products, whether for personal or digestive reasons, don’t have to miss out on milk, thanks to the wide and growing variety of non-dairy milks. Cow’s milk alternatives like soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, hazelnut milk, coconut milk, hemp milk and more are all growing in popularity – it’s hard to guess what someone will make milk out of next!
If you’ve started exploring almond milk or other plant-based milks, you know that there are also plant-based yogurt, smoothie, cheese and other dairy product alternatives on the market today. While these are pretty exciting, particularly for the lactose-intolerant crowd, we’ve chosen to focus on plant-based milks in this article.
Whether you’re at the grocery store or the coffee shop, we know it can be tricky to keep all the milk alternatives straight. Let us help break it down for you. First of all, the difference between plant milks and nut milks. Nut milk is any milk that’s specifically made from nuts, such as hazelnut, cashew, or most commonly, almond milk. Plant milk, on the other hand, is any milk made from plants. So while plant milk does include nut milk (since nuts are a type of plant), it’s typically used to refer to milk alternatives like soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, oat milk, hemp milk, and others.
Today, we’re comparing cow’s milk to one of the most common nut milks: almond milk. While oat milk is certainly growing in popularity (particularly among coffee drinkers, as oat milk makes coffee extra-creamy), almond milk is a classic plant-based standby, and one of the first challengers to go head-to-head with cow’s milk. It also has a totally different nutritional profile from cow’s milk, with fewer calories, more grams of fat, and fewer grams of protein. Of course, just because we’re only looking at almond milk, doesn’t mean you should cast aside all the other plant-based milk alternatives. Soy milk is a great choice for those who can’t eat dairy, but want to make sure they’re still getting an alternative milk product with protein, as soy milk has comparable grams of protein to cow’s milk. Rice milk and oat milk have low fat content and are easy on your digestive system. And hemp milk has a good amount of protein and healthy fats. Of course, all four are great choices for those with a tree nut allergy – if you’re considering coconut milk, however, know that some documented reactions in individuals with tree nut allergies have occurred. Many of these milks have also been used to make dairy-free yogurt!
Now that you’ve got the basic rundown on alternative milk products, let’s check out the facts on almond milk and dairy milk.
Comparing the Milks
A single cup serving of almond milk contains anywhere from 30 to 90 calories, 1 gram of protein, and 45% of your daily value of calcium (depending on the brand and flavor). Unsweetened almond milk contains just one gram of carbohydrates, however, sweetened varieties like chocolate or vanilla contain more. In contrast, a single cup serving of cow’s milk has 90 to 150 calories (calories vary from skim to whole milk), 9 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates and 30% of your daily value of calcium. Keep in mind that we’re primarily looking at unflavored almond milk and unsweetened cow’s milk here. We will address the variations between different amounts of fat in cow’s milk, but we’re looking at almond milk as an unsweetened whole. While there are some clear advantages to almond milk, if calories are of concern, cow’s milk is the true winner in the protein category. Now, let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each type of milk – they go way beyond the nutrition label.
Pros of Almond Milk
Almond milk has fewer calories than cow’s milk (as long as you’re buying unsweetened varieties. Read the carton carefully, as even types of vanilla almond milk can be sweetened). It also has less fat than whole milk, but only whole milk – almond milk’s fat content is about the same as two percent, and higher than skim or one percent. One thing that’s worth noting is that the fat in almond milk is healthier than the fat in cow’s milk because it’s unsaturated. Research suggests that limiting saturated fats is a good practice for those with diabetes. Studies have shown a link between heart disease and saturated fat consumption, so one benefit of almond milk is that you’re getting your fats from a healthier source. It also has a higher nutrient profile, and contains more potassium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, magnesium and calcium. And lastly, almond milk is vegan, vegetarian, and a great choice for consumers with lactose intolerance. (We also think it’s great with your morning coffee!)
Cons of Almond Milk
Almond milk is generally more expensive than cow’s milk. And if you’re an environmentally conscious consumer, as well as budget-conscious, it’s one of the most water-intensive crops in the United States today. (Fun fact: California grows most of the almonds in the United States!) Processed almond milk can also contain additives that manufacturers use to adjust its flavor and texture, like sugars and emulsifiers. For instance, carrageenan, an ingredient that’s widely used for thickening and stabilizing, was linked to harmful gastrointestinal effects in a research study. Make sure you’re reading the ingredients when you’re at the market!
One small downside for bakers is that almond milk and other milk substitutes might behave differently from cow’s milk in recipes, due to the different mixture of fat, carbs and protein. For times when you’re baking with only almond milk on hand, check out the recipe substitutions before you start.
Pros of Dairy Milk
One major benefit that cow’s milk has over almond milk is that cow’s milk contains more protein. Cow’s milk also contains more carbohydrates. However, the milk that has more fat varies, depending on whether you drink skim milk (which has no fat) or whole milk (which has more fat than almond milk).
The main health benefit of cow’s milk is that it contains complete protein, since it’s an animal product, and it contains a lot of important nutrients like B-vitamins, too. And while almond milk contains more calcium, dairy milk is still a great source of it. Lastly, unlike almond milk, cow’s milk rarely contains added ingredients (unless you’re buying chocolate milk for your children, or your adult self of course).
Cons of Dairy Milk
If you’re drinking two percent or whole milk, it’s important to keep in mind that higher amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol which can increase risk of heart attack. The best way to enjoy cow’s milk is by drinking one percent or skim. Other things to keep in mind are that lactose intolerance and food allergies have been associated with drinking cow’s milk, and that it can interfere with iron absorption, specifically in toddlers and infants.
Again, for the environmentally conscious consumer, dairy milk uses about ten times the amount of land as almond milk (this is true for land use across all plant-based milks; dairy uses the most land by far). It also uses more water than almond milk, but almond milk is still one of the most water-intensive crops in the world.
Things to Consider
Now that we’ve given you the low-down on almond vs. cow’s milk, it’s important to remember that you’re still getting calcium with both milk options! If cow’s milk is a better choice for you, consider buying organic dairy – the hormones in commercial dairy can potentially damage your body. On the other hand, almond milk is a great alternative if food allergies, such as lactose intolerance, are an issue for you or your family. And as always, talk to your doctor about any health issues you might have that might affect the type of milk you drink.
The good news is that both of these types of milk have their own benefits, and the choice between them is nothing to lose sleep over! Choose the beverage that makes the most sense for you based on budget, health, and your taste preferences. Just because almond milk or any other milk alternative is buzzy, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you. And just because you’ve been drinking cow’s milk since you were a child, doesn’t mean you can’t make the switch now. If you’re thinking you want to give almond milk a try, we say go for it, and if cow’s milk is still the milk for you, that’s alright moo. Sorry, we had to.