The Difference Between Cow’s Milk and Plant Based Beverages

Plant-based beverages seem to be a big trend these days and my clients tell me all the time they made the switch to them because they think it is healthier, even if they don’t have allergies to cow’s milk or lactose intolerance. Just simply because they “think it is healthier.” However, as a registered dietitian, an Ambassador for National Dairy Council and a milk lover, I want to set the record straight.

It’s your choice to drink either cow’s milk or plant-based beverages, but you should be aware of the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk and milk products and the potential consequences of switching without having all the facts.  Plant-based beverages like coconut, rice or oat, to name a few, are not in the Dietary Guidelines’ dairy group because their nutrition is not at all similar to cow’s milk. Soy milk, however, is in the dairy group because it contains protein and is fortified with similar nutrients as cow’s milk.

Cow’s milk naturally contains calcium, protein, B12 and riboflavin and is fortified with vitamin D. Many Americans don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D and A in their diets and milk can help! If you are lactose intolerant like I am, you should know that there are lactose-free cow’s milk options widely available at the supermarket. Yes, it’s true, some plant-based beverages are fortified with calcium, but the calcium in dairy milk is often more bioavailable meaning that you absorb more of it.

Another thing you should know is that plant-beverages often lack protein. One cup of milk gives you 8 grams of high-quality protein while one serving of many plant beverages provide less than one gram. Think about it. If you drink 3 cups of cow’s milk a day and then switch to certain plant- beverages, you have just lowered your protein intake by 24 grams. Protein is not only important for vital body processes, but helps you to control your hunger and keep your metabolism strong.

The last comparison I want to make is that milk is considered a whole food, meaning it is a minimally processed food. Plant-based beverages on the other hand are more processed in order to get the final product. So, if you want the nutrition benefits from almonds then eat whole almonds. Almond beverages are not as nearly as nutrient-dense as the nut itself.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend 3 servings of dairy a day either from milk, yogurt or cheese. Studies have shown that meeting these guidelines is good for our health and even is linked to reduced risk of some diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So unless you have an allergy to cow’s milk or decide to become a vegan, there really is not a health-based reason to switch to plant-based beverages. You can drink plant-beverages, but also be aware of what nutrition and health benefits you can miss out on by not having cow’s milk.

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