Cow’s milk is a complete food, at least for baby cows. It has a good balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. It also contains compounds that boost the immune system.
But not everyone can drink cow’s milk – or any animal milk at all. Some have allergic reactions to it. (Up to 3.5% of children today have milk allergies, and while some eventually outgrow the allergy, others do not.) Some are lactose intolerant – including 80% of African-Americans and closer to 100% in Native American and East Asian populations. Yet others are vegan, do not like the taste, or avoid cow’s milk for other personal reasons.
Hence, the increasing popularity of plant-based milks. These are made by grinding various beans, nuts, or grains, then adding water and often flavors and additional nutrients.
But how do these compare to cow’s milk nutritionally? That was the focus of a study recently published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology. Four of the most common plant-based milks were considered: soy, rice, coconut, and almond.
Of these, soy was found to pack the biggest nutritional punch, with the best balance of proteins, carbs, and fats. Soy milk also contains cancer-fighting substances known as isoflavones.
Unfortunately, it also contains anti-nutrients that interfere with nutrient intake and absorption. Many also just don’t like its flavor.
Coconut and almond milk are low in both carbs and calories. Most of those calories come from fats known to benefit heart health. Neither is a great source of protein, however. Almond milk has a little, while coconut milk effectively has none. (There are also concerns that the ramped up production required by the ongoing almond craze is less than environmentally friendly.)
Rice milk was found to be the most unbalanced of the four. It’s very high in carbohydrates, containing more than twice as many as cow’s milk, and very low in both proteins and fats. Still, researchers suggested it may be a good option for those allergic to soy and nut-based milks.
But these are hardly the only plant-based milks out there. Other, newer options include oat, hemp, hazelnut, and macadamia nut milks. Like the others, each of these has its nutritional strengths and limitations.
Oat milk, for instance, is low in protein but high in healthy fiber, while hazelnut milk is nutritionally similar to almond milk but richer in the B vitamins and vitamin E.
Macadamia milk might seem less than ideal, with more fat and less protein than most nut-based milks. Yet the fat is almost all monounsaturated, which may lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Hemp milk has much to recommend it. It has four times the omega fatty acids as soy milk and provides 10 essential amino acids.
One point that must be stressed is that these plant-based milks are not for very young children and especially not for babies. It is essential that babies be fed either breast milk or a complete infant formula. No plant-based milk can provide all the nutrients required for infant development.
Another key point: So long as you get your calcium and other nutrients somewhere, it’s not essential for adults to drink milk. Until very recently in human history, adults drank water and got all their nutrients from their other foods. This is still true in many lactose intolerant populations.
Nonetheless, if you choose to drink milk, what is the best milk for you? Talk with your integrative healthcare providers, read labels while shopping, and keep in mind your individual health needs. There’s no shortage of options for those who want to replace cow’s milk with a plant-derived alternative.