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Plant-based milk vs. dairy: how do they stack up?

Plant-based milk vs. dairy: how do they stack up?

The popularity of non-dairy milk alternatives is at an all-time high. But, how should you decide which is best when it seems there's a new option every day? Is switching to dairy-free milk even all the better for you? I’d be willing to bet you’ve experimented here and have had at least one type of dairy-free milk in your refrigerator before - maybe making your own nut milk is even a routine quarantine activity these days!

Non-dairy milk comes from plants such as soy, nuts, seeds, or grains like oats and rice. Animal rights and environmental activists might be drawn to dairy free milk because it’s cruelty-free, and significantly better for the environment. But for the average person who is just trying to eat well - does lactose-free make that much of a difference?

Look at any traditional milk carton and you’ll see affirmations about dairy being a great source of calcium, protein, and vitamin D. It is worthy to note that some non-dairy milks are fortified with additional nutrients too, such as essential minerals or Omega-3 fatty acids. 

Which of these nutrients are more available in dairy-free vs. dairy-full dairy? Let’s take a look! 

Comparing dairy-free vs. dairy-full.

#1: Calories
While almond, rice, coconut, hemp, and cashew milk are lower in calories, some types of oat milk have as many, if not more, calories as cows milk. For this reason, I don’t encourage assuming that switching to a dairy-free alternative will automatically lead to weight loss, if that is your goal!

#2: Calcium
Almond, pea, and flaxseed milk contain more calcium than cow’s milk. Calcium is one nutrient that is actually *more* bioavailable in its’ fortified form, but other nutrients (such as Vitamin D) need to be present for it to be properly absorbed.

#3: Fat
Most plant based milks are significantly lower in fat than cows milk, which is one reason for lower calorie content.  

#4: Sugar
Sugar in dairy products is so misunderstood. I always like to clarify that, by nature, 8oz of milk contains 12g of natural sugar (lactose). Don’t be scared of this number on the label! It’s not added sugar that’s being dumped into your carton. Also, the amount of carbohydrate (sugar) is the same across the board for all types of cow’s milk (independent of fat content). Having said that, most all *unsweetened* plant-based alternatives are lower in sugar (usually ~3 g), except for oat milk (around 19 g).

#5: Protein
For me, this is the biggest distinction between dairy free and dairy containing milk. All are lower in protein. So, you can’t expect to swap out the cow’s milk in your morning granola and still get the same balance of nutrients. This is *especially* important if you’re wanting to better manage your blood sugar, curb cravings, and prevent hunger. Out of all the dairy-free milks; soy, pea, and flax milk contain a similar protein profile to cows milk. 

So - which is the best option? When choosing between all of these milks, know that you don’t need to switch to dairy free milk just because your friend did, or because you see more appealing dairy free alternatives in the store. Of course, if you prefer the taste - go for it! But unless you’re lactose intolerant, it’s not a must.

Overall, why make the non-dairy switch?

Milk alternatives are suitable options if you are lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy, are vegan, are concerned about gut inflammation/acne, or even simply love the taste!

Personally, I flip-flop between cow’s milk & dairy-free options. I like to keep it interesting, and I feel there are some things that just can’t be mimicked with dairy-free alternatives. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are, and what you use in your everyday life! Feel free to reach out to me via e-mail, or head to my website and leave a comment!

Olivia Brant, RD

Olivia Brant is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Olivia Ashton Nutrition. She uses behavior-based coaching to show women it’s possible to lose weight while enjoying all foods in moderation. If you’d like to learn more about how she works with women to take a positive, non-judgemental, and stress-free approach to weight loss, watch this short video. You can also connect with Olivia on Instagram, YouTube, and in her private Facebook group.