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.
Protein is the biggest difference, noted Adrienne Markus, nutrition consultant at The Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester.
“There’s more in dairy milk,” she said. “Soy is the one non-dairy milk that has protein. They all have vitamin D and calcium, but it’s absorbed differently in the body.”
While plant-based beverages may seem a nutritious choice, they don’t contain the same nutrients as their sources because they’re highly processed. Most of their nutrients come from supplementation.
Markus said that most non-dairy beverages function as a carrier for transporting supplementation, which is far different from drinking a glass of milk with inherent nutrients.
“A whole food is better than individual nutrients, Markus added.
Though for people whose allergy or lactose intolerance prohibits them from drinking milk, it’s better to look for fortified alternatives because of the problems milk can cause.
For example, someone who is allergic to dairy milk or lactose intolerant can experience significant gastrointestinal difficulties drinking dairy milk. Milk is among one of the top eight food allergens, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“If you can tolerate milk, there are advantages in milk that you can’t get in alternatives,” Markus said.
April Ho, clinical dietitian with University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Community Health and Prevention, said that milk contains one gram of protein per ounce of milk. It’s also top-quality protein.
“It’s complete, with all the essential amino acids,” Ho said. “It’s also very easily digested — one of the tops, even higher than beef or soy. Not only are you getting 8 grams of protein per serving, but also a form that has top quality.”
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.
“When looking at plant-based milk, there can be fortification, but it’s not consistent,” Ho said. “They might fortify it just like cow’s milk, but not always.”
Ho also said that the calcium natural to cow’s milk is easily absorbable, unlike some types of fortification.
“You may see fortified products with 33 percent more calcium, but that doesn’t equate to how much your body can absorb and use,” Ho said. “It’s not equal. You can’t directly equate it based on how many milligrams are on the food label.”
Soy alternatives contain protein similar in quantity to milk and pea-based beverages run a close second place; however, it’s not absorbed as readily as dairy protein.
Nut-based beverages may seem like a good source of protein since nuts are healthful; however, Ho said that they’re not the same.
“A lot of the nutrition is filtered out,” Ho said.
“Almonds are high in fiber, protein and calcium, but when it’s made into a beverage, you lose all the protein and fiber,” Ho said. “You don’t get the full nutrition you’d get from eating nuts. The same is for quinoa or oats.”
Ho said that vegans can balance several types of protein to create a well-rounded diet, but they cannot expect to obtain it from one source.
Coconut alternatives contain little protein but have been touted for improving the metabolism; however, Ho cautioned about its regular use since it contains high levels of saturated fat.
Nut-based beverages do represent good sources of polyunsaturated fats, and are sources of vitamins A and E. Ho also said that hemp beverages provide omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium.
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.
Some of the non-dairy milks can be sweetened or unsweetened. If sweetened, they’ll be higher in sugar. Lactose is dairy sugar, so it’s not added unless it’s chocolate milk or strawberry milk.
Among plant-based milk alternatives, rice milk contains less sugar than others. But Ho warned that “several rice milks have been shown to have 70 percent more arsenic than the World Health Organization standard for drinking water. The US-based products are less safe. Rice in Thailand or Asia are better. That goes for rice or rice products.”
US 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.