• Dairy vs plant milk

How do dairy-free milk alternatives stack up to cow's milk?

By Courtney Gerlach

Courtney is a Registered Dietitian at Fonterra. She holds a BSc. Food Science & Nutrition, and a MHSc in Nutrition & Dietetics

  • Dairy vs plant milk

Are you thinking about switching to dairy-free “milk” alternatives because you have read or heard they’re more nutritious and better for you? Plant-based beverages are sometimes suggested as a suitable substitute for cow’s milk. But are they nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk?

Dietary guidelines throughout the world recommend consuming milk and dairy products daily to support good health. In NZ our dietary guidelines recommend 2-4 servings of dairy depending on your life stage.

Milk and dairy products contain a unique bundle of essential nutrients and are considered an excellent source of calcium. While plant-based beverages can be consumed instead of cow’s milk, they often don’t provide the same benefits.

Milk is minimally processed and contains just one ingredient 

When you pick up your bottle of cow’s milk, you’ll generally find one ingredient listed on pack: milk. That’s it.  This is true for all plain unfortified milk varieties, including reduced fat or trim milk which just has some fat taken out and no water or sugar is added.  

On the label of many plant-based milk-alternatives on the other hand, you can easily find seven or more ingredients listed. The first ingredient is often water and, unless you pick up an unsweetened version, added sugar is typically also found on the ingredients list, not just in flavoured but also in ‘plain’ varieties. 

While fresh cow’s milk undergoes simple processing steps (such as pasteurisation, standardisation and homogenisation), plant-based alternatives have additional processing steps such as grinding, enzyme treatment, deodorising and removal or alteration of much of the original plant material.  The actual plant content can be surprisingly low in the finished product – almond beverages can contain as little as 2% almond. Other ingredients include added micronutrients such as calcium and vitamins to try and mimic that of cow’s milk, plus stabilisers, emulsifiers, and vegetable oils. Take a moment to check out the ingredients list when selecting your product is best for you.

Milk naturally provides a unique package of essential nutrients

While cow’s milk is generally only one ingredient, it does come with a whole package of nutrients, such as high-quality protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins, and vitamin A in full-fat milk. Many plant-based beverages, on the other hand, aren’t naturally as nutrient-rich as cow’s milk, especially when the plant portion is very small and they are mostly water. Since they are suggested as alternatives to cow’s milk, calcium is usually added to match the levels of milk. Some of the products also have a few other nutrients added, but most don’t come close to the range or levels of nutrient that cow’s milk provides.

Plain cow’s milk is also a great choice because it contains no added sugars. Lactose, the sugar that occurs naturally in milk, has a low glycaemic index (GI). This means it doesn’t lead to blood sugar spikes but provides a more sustained source of energy. Lactose is also a low cariogenic sugar, meaning it doesn’t affect your teeth like other sugars, and since cow’s milk is naturally calcium-rich as well, it’s a great choice for healthy teeth. Plant-based beverages often also contain added sugars such as sucrose or syrups, which are associated with dental cavities and should be limited in the diet.  

Milk provides more and higher quality protein

Milk is a great source of high-quality protein. However, with the exception of soy-based beverages, most plant-based beverages typically have low levels of protein. Some provide as little as 1-2 g of protein per 250 mL glass. Cow’s milk, on the other hand, provides more than 8 g of protein per 250 mL glass standard milk, almost 10 g per glass if you choose trim milk and 15 g for our Protein+ lite milk. So with cow’s milk, you usually get more bang for your buck if the protein is what you’re after. Cow’s milk protein is of high quality as it provides all of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts and has a very high digestibility, whereas the protein in plant-based beverages such as oat and rice is generally poor-quality protein.

Can dairy be part of a sustainable diet? 

Dairy is recognised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) as part of a low environmental impact diet consistent with good health when consumed in moderation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also recognises moderate dairy intake as part of their guiding principles for a sustainable healthy diet. Nutrient-rich dairy can be a valuable source of nutrition, especially for populations at risk of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity. 

Increasingly, people are being advised to enjoy a predominantly plant-based diet. As milk is an important source of high-quality protein, dairy is a great complementary source of nutrition to a predominantly plant-based diet which can otherwise be lacking in several essential nutrients such as calcium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12 and essential amino acids. 

Need to go lactose-free?

Some people may have trouble digesting lactose, and so need to opt for lower lactose or lactose-free products. While cow’s milk naturally contains lactose, lactose-free options are available and so there is no need to switch to cow’s milk alternatives. Some dairy products such as hard cheeses are naturally low in lactose. Also, most people who have problems digesting lactose can usually tolerate small amounts of lactose without experiencing any discomfort, especially if eaten with other foods and spread throughout the day. Fermented dairy products such as yoghurt are usually well-tolerated because the lactose is partially broken down during the fermentation process. If you’re wondering whether you may have difficulty digesting lactose, we recommend you speak with a health professional for an expert diagnosis and advice tailored to your individual needs.

Overall, cow’s milk has a huge amount going for it: one ingredient, minimal processing, great taste, versatility and typically more nutritional bang for your buck. This makes it a great choice that is not easy to replace. Plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk can be consumed as part of a balanced and varied diet but should not be considered nutritionally equivalent to milk.