Dairy vs Plant-Based Milk Alternatives: Which is Really Better?
Almost half of Americans drink a plant-based milk, or non-dairy milk alternative (NDMA) each day. Can you believe it?! If you would have told me that 20 years ago, I would have thought that was crazy.
The non-dairy milk market has grown about 60% over the past five years, and could to reach $38B (as in billion) in sales by 2024. At the same time, we are drinking less dairy milk. US milk intake has gone down by over a third since 1970.
Why Are We Drinking Less (Cow's) Milk?
Most people on the planet have some degree of lactose intolerance. Before plant-based milks were “a thing”, all these people just didn’t drink milk. Now that NDMAs are more available, lactose-intolerant or dairy-allergic people have options. Still, this doesn’t fully explain the the new popularity of non-dairy milk drinks. In fact, many people who drink NDMAs can digest dairy just fine. So, there probably many reasons, and here are a few:
- Huge market: As mentioned, about 2/3 of the world’s people are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy.
- Ethical concerns: People are more aware of and concerned about how dairy cattle are treated.
- Sustainability: Raising dairy cattle is more expensive for farmers and has greater environmental costs than growing plant crops. Furthermore, some people are choosing more plant-based products because they are perceived as more Earth-friendly.
- Weight management and health reasons: Non-dairy milks tend to have fewer calories than dairy milk and are cholesterol-free. Some people also believe that dairy increases risk for chronic disease (not proven, by the way).
There are many more reasons, I’m sure. Consumer economics is not my area of expertise! What I do know about are a few pros and cons of non-dairy milk alternatives (NDMAs) – from a nutrition, food science, and personal perspective.
First, a Few Assumptions
In comparing dairy and non-dairy milk, let’s make a few assumptions:
- If you don’t tolerate or are allergic to milk, there is not much of a choice. In other words, you don’t drink dairy milk as matter of health. If you fall into this category, please enjoy reading about the “pros” of non-dairy milk. 😀
- What we experience is our reality. Considering pros and cons of anything can be uncomfortable if it goes against our beliefs. In other words, in the end, we all do what we want, for our own wackadoodle reasons. No judgement here!
- To be fair to dairy cattle, I’ll be comparing unsweetened, unflavored NDMAs to dairy milk.
The Pros of Plant-Based "Milk"
Ok, let’s start with the awesomeness of NDMAs – these would be the “pros”.
1. Nutrition Highlights
Plant-based milks do have some advantages over dairy.
- Fewer calories (remember, for unsweetened plain varieties!)
- All are cholesterol free. There is no cholesterol in plants, so … yeah.
- See the Nutrition Facts table near the bottom of the post for more details.
2. Mouthfeel and Body
Wait, what are “mouthfeel” and “body”, you ask?
- Mouthfeel – the sensation produced by a food or drink when it is in the mouth.
- Body – how heavy, thick, or viscous the drink feels in the mouth or throat.
- Due to emulsifiers and stabilizers (E&S) in most plant-based milks, they have amazing mouthfeel and body. In other words, they are thick and creamy.
- By the way, E&S are are totally safe. They are usually plant-based compounds (sometimes made from the nut/seed/oat used to make the “milk” itself) that keep oil and water from separating and make the “milk” creamy.
3. Shelf-stable 4 Life!
- Six-month shelf life for non-refrigerated varieties. Most types of NDMAs can be found in the grocery aisle, packaged in 1- or 2-quart aseptic packaging.
- Ultra-high-temperature (UHT) pasteurization (also called aseptic processing), guarantees a six-month shelf life. Sometimes dairy milk is packaged this way – as in, single-serving chocolate milk cartons. This is much more common outside of the US.
- If you’ve been down a NDMA milk aisle recently, you know what I mean. There’s the ever-present Soy Milk, sure, but what about Banana Milk, Pea Milk, Hemp Milk, and (the milk de jour) Oat Milk?
- Nevermind the additional flavors. You know, outside of plain. Got a hankering for chocolate almond coconut milk? There’s an NMDA for that!
- No raising, feeding, milking, cleaning up after dairy cows. Raising cattle is a lot of work for farmers, the cows, and the environment (think maintaining barns, equipment, fences, water sources, cleaning up manure, disposing of “old” cows, etc.). Growing plants like soybeans, oats, etc. takes fewer resources.
The Cons of Plant-Based "Milk"
1. More Additives
Not scary ones, though.
- While safe, emulsifiers and stabilizers are added to give NDMAs their satisfyingly thick and creamy texture.
- NDMAs are typically fortified with vitamins (D and A) and minerals (mainly calcium). It’s worth noting that most dairy milk is also fortified with vitamin D, and sometimes vitamin A, too.
2. Nutrition Lows
See table below for comparisons.
- On the whole (pun!), cow milk provides more protein, calories, and fat than NDMAs. Dairy milk also has more vitamin D and calcium than unfortified NDMAs.
- Note: Soy milk is the closest nutritional match to to cow’s milk.
- A lot of NDMAs now contain added calcium and vitamins A and D, but check the label if you’re concerned.
NDMAs are usually more expensive than dairy milk.
- Plant-based milks vary from around $2 for 1-quart and $3 for 2-quart cartons; compared to $3 for a gallon (4 quarts) of dairy milk. If you have a big family that drinks a few gallons of milk per week, the cost can be a factor.
4. More Trash
Plant-based milks come in smaller, not always recyclable packaging.
- NDMAs are usually packaged in smaller 1- or 2-quart containers. I’ve yet to see a gallon jug of any non-dairy milk. This means more container waste for NDMAs.
- Where we live in Oregon, the most common containers for NDMAs (aseptic cardboard) are not recyclable, but plastic milk jugs are.
5. Funky Tastes
If you enjoy full-fat dairy milk, yogurt, and cheese … well, plant-based varieties do not even compare. With a few exceptions (chocolate-flavored almond milk), NDMAs don’t have the satisfying buttery flavor that actual cow milk has.
Nutrition: dairy milk and common non-dairy milk alternatives
|1 Cup Serving, no added sweeteners||Calories||Fat (g)||Protein (g)||Carbs (g)||Calcium (% RDA)||Vitamin D (% RDA)||Vitamin A (% RDA)|
In Summary ...
With about a thousand different milk and milk alternatives available, making a decision can be overwhelming! Here are few ideas for selecting your perfect milk:
- First, buy what tastes good to you and worry less about all other factors – all dairy and non-dairy milks have nutritional merits.
- Consider shelf life and price, and buy only what you will consume. It makes me sad when food goes bad.
- NDMAs are definitely gaining popularity, but plain ol’ milk is still one of the most nutritious single foods available. Stick with whole or 2% dairy milk for more protein, fat, and energy.
Just For Fun
What’s your favorite milk or “milk”?
Lately, I’m making my own oat milk! I really love how thick (even a little slimy) it is, although my kids think it’s “sick” (in the bad, gross way).
Runners-up for fave milks:
- Whole milk, especially for coffee drinks and cereal.
- Chocolate-flavored almond milk – straight up. It’s insanely creamy and decadent.
- My posts on 10 Healthy Foods and Best Breakfast Bowl discuss the benefits of full-fat dairy yogurt.
- Check out my DIY Substitutes, Mocha Smoothie, and Breakfast Bowl for Special Diets posts for ideas on how to use plant-based milks as substitutes for dairy milk.
Survey Reveals Need for Emulsifiers and Stabilizers in Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives
How to Judge Food Ingredients You Don’t Even Know?
Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives Are Experiencing A ‘Holy Cow!’ Moment
Almond Milk vs. Cow’s Milk vs. Soy Milk vs. Rice Milk
Is Non-Refrigerated Milk Bad for You?
US Non-Dairy Milk Sales Grow 61% over the Last 5 Year
US Sales of Dairy Milk Turn Sour as Non-Dairy Milk Sales Grow 9% in 2015
Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI)
A Nutritional Comparison of Dairy and Plant-Based Milk Varieties
The Global Non-Dairy Milk Market Is Projected to Reach Revenues of More than $38 Billion by 2024
Stewart, Hayden, Diansheng Dong, and Andrea Carlson. Why Are Americans Consuming Less Fluid Milk? A Look at Generational Differences in Intake Frequency, ERR-149, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2013.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. The information I provide is based on my personal experience, education and study of dietetics, human nutrition, and biochemistry; and my experience as a runner and athlete. Any recommendations I may make about exercise, nutrition, supplements or lifestyle; or information provided to you in person or on this website are for information purposes only and do not take the place of professional medical advice.
One thing is clear. All milk alternatives are far better for the planet than dairy. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford showed that producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk and it consumes nine times more land than any of the milk alternatives. (Land is required to pasture the cows and grow their feed, which the animals belch out in the form of methane.)
Except for soy, which has a decent amount of protein, NDMAs are empty calories. They aren’t even satisfying because they’re liquid calories, and the only “nutrition” comes from carbs and fat. So drink them if you want, but they’re not good for you.
Thank you for weighing in, T. I agree that many NDMAs are nutritionally inferior to dairy milk, but in my opinion, they are more than empty calories. Whether they are “good for you” or not is relative and open to debate. NDMAs are what they are advertised to be – alternatives. Perhaps not 1-to-1 substitutes for dairy milk, but an option for people who don’t drink dairy milk. 🙂
Thank you for this comparison. I’m now curious about making my own oat milk, and thinking it could be a great alternative to the more costly store bought almond milk, which I’ve been buying for years!
Hey Morgan! Here’s my favorite tutorial for making your own oat milk from Minimalist Baker. It’s the simplest description I’ve found, with plenty of variation suggestions and a thorough set of oat-milk-making FAQs.
DIY oat milk is a lot less expensive than buying it, but it is somewhat labor intensive and messy. I’ve enlisted my daughter Heidi to help with the “milking”, and she enjoys it!