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Green Goodness
  • Writer's pictureSylvia Meo, R.D.

Cow’s Milk or Plant-Based Alternatives: What’s the Difference and Which One Should You Choose?

Dairy Milk

Some of the controversy surrounding cow’s milk is due to a perception that growth hormones and antibiotics were given to the cows and are thus present in the milk. However, in Canada dairy cows are not given growth hormones and choosing organic guarantees they also haven’t received any antibiotics.

Unless you are lactose-intolerant (lactose is the natural sugar present in milk, which by the way the total amount of sugar that is listed on a milk label are entirely from this natural sugar, no sugar is added!) or have an allergy to bovine protein, cow’s milk offers many healthy nutrients. It is a rich natural source of protein, calcium, riboflavin (vitamin B2, an essential water-soluble vitamin that is not stored in the body and thus needs to be taken through food, milk and dairy products being good sources) and potassium. Although, some plant-based alternatives may offer an interesting nutrient profile, none comes close to that of cow’s milk for these nutrients. Furthermore, all the vitamins and minerals in plant-based milks are added to them.

Cow’s milk contains 8 g of high quality protein per one cup serving, which is more than the amount of protein found in one egg (6 g/large egg). No other plant-based alternative, except for soy milk (6-8 g/serving) comes close to this amount. The quality of plant protein is generally not as high as animal protein which contains a better balance of all the amino acids. Furthermore, the combination of casein and whey protein it contains is highly effective for muscle damage repair.

It is a rich natural source of highly absorbable calcium (about 300 mg per serving), a mineral essential for healthy bones and teeth and that is considered beneficial for bone development in children. It is also fortified with vitamin D, which together with calcium benefits bone health and helps prevent osteoporosis.

It is a potassium-rich food (about 400 mg per serving) which can benefit heart health by reducing blood pressure and increasing vasodilation. Potassium levels also increase with the lower fat content of milk.

Being a food that comes from animals, milk does contain saturated fats and cholesterol. The higher the percent milk fat you choose, the higher the amount of these two fats will be. If you are concerned about your heart health, choosing a lower fat milk (1%) or non-fat milk will not only considerably decrease your intake for both these fats, while giving you more potassium!

Soy Milk

Soy milk is definitely a winner when it comes to having the best protein content (7-8 g per serving) of all the plant-based milks and when fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals, it is the one that most closely resembles the nutrition profile of cow’s milk. Soy milk also contains plant-based omega 3 fatty acids and it is also one of the few plant-based alternatives that has a creamy and slightly thicker texture, which many enjoy and look for. Furthermore, soy milk contains isoflavones, a plant compound that research has linked to a decrease in the growth of cancer cells and the risk of early death in breast cancer patients, and studies have found it has no bad effects on women with estrogen fueled breast cancer. (add links to studies)

Due to soy crops often being genetically modified or doused in the nasty pesticide Roundup, make sure you go organic to avoid both these issues. For those allergic to soy protein and wanting a plant-based alternative to cow’s milk with a comparable protein content, a new arrival on the market, pea milk ( may be an interesting contender.

Almond Milk

The main ingredients here are almonds and water. Almonds are a good source of healthy fats and minerals such as calcium and iron. It is also a popular choice because it is the plant-based alternative that is the least caloric. Unfortunately, almond milk contains fewer nutrients than the actual nuts themselves. Due to the fact that the amount of almonds used to produce each carton of almond milk is not much (for most brands the almond percentage is only 2-3%) it contains very little protein and most of the vitamins and minerals listed on the package are added to the beverage. Being fortified is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is like when we take supplements, it helps meet our needs, but is not as good as when we get our nutrients from a whole food instead.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk has a slightly nutty flavor and a creamier texture than the other nut beverages. For those of you who prefer a creamier texture, especially for your cup of coffee, this nut milk, along with soy milk, would be what I recommend. Cashew milk and other nut milks (we now can even find macadamia milks) are essentially similar to almond milk in many ways. Essentially, their protein content is low, most of their vitamins and minerals are added to the beverage and not naturally present, and they often contain many additives and preservatives, consequently they fall short as a good replacement for cow’s milk. If you choose to make your own nut milk at home, this would be the easiest one to make, as the nut is buttery soft and once thoroughly ground and blended it doesn’t need to be strained through a cheesecloth or nut milk bag!

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk can contain as much as 4 g of protein per cup (this amount may vary depending on the brand), making it an interesting alternative when you compare it to most plant-based milks which barely contain any protein. It also contains healthy plant-based omega 3 fatty acids, but the funky, strong grassy taste isn’t always a crowd pleaser. Like all other plant-based milks, it may also contain carrageenan and other less interesting additives, and all the vitamins and minerals are added via fortification.

Rice Milk

This is a less interesting option. The flavor and texture may be appreciated, but nutrition wise, this beverage gives you much more carbohydrates and sugars per serving than any other plant-based version, and is also very low in protein. It also is the one that may have the blandest flavor. Yet it is the least allergenic one, so for those with allergies, they may consider it a good option, although because rice is a leading dietary source of inorganic arsenic (which has been associated with higher risks of skin, bladder and lung cancers, as well as heart disease), it would not be a plant-based alternative that I would recommend. Overall, rice milk really doesn’t have much going for itself!

Oat Milk

In the grain category, I would say this one is my favorite. Oat milk is the one with the most protein than other grains and most plant-based alternatives, providing about 4 g per cup. It also has an interesting creamy texture and milky flavor, so if you can’t have milk and miss it’s taste, this may be the option for you! Actually, for those of you who like me enjoy the taste your cow’s milk has at the end of your cereal bowl, you’ll love the taste of this plant-based alternative.

Coconut Milk

We’ve all heard or read about the virtues of coconut oil, butter, milk and now even yogurt. The type of fat in coconut milk may have some benefits; it’s also rich in important B vitamins and minerals such as calcium and iron. Unfortunately, it is like most plant-based alternatives, very low in protein and you need to read the ingredient lists to make sure there aren’t too many undesired ingredients added. Also, if you don’t like the taste of coconut to begin with, this is definitely not the right choice for you. Coconut milk blends or hybrids also exist in almond-coconut flavor, making the taste smoother and not so intense! So if you are debating between the two, this could be a good choice!

If you choose the canned variety, the most important thing to watch out for is that the can is BPA-free. Also the canned varieties are not fortified with vitamins and minerals like the carton varieties, and are a very concentrated and not watered-down like the carton variety; consequently they contain a lot more fat and calories. Being aware of the size of your portion becomes important in this case!


Unless you suffer from lactose intolerance (you can always choose a lactose-free cow’s milk) or from an allergy to cow’s milk, or have chosen to follow a diet that excludes animal products, I would strongly recommend you don’t replace your entire cow’s milk intake with plant-based milks. There is nothing wrong with adding variety to your diet, in fact I strongly urge you to have a diet that contains a variety of different foods and ingredients in order to get the most nutrients into your daily diet, but try to keep at least 1 serving daily of a good quality cow’s milk and not the low or fat-free kind. If you are otherwise healthy, I recommend and also consume 2% milk, especially if I am only taking 1 serving a day. When the fat is taken out of the milk, its fat, protein and carbohydrate profile changes. In fact, the less fat there is in cow’s milk, the higher the carbohydrate (sugar i.e. lactose) content, this disrupts different systems in our bodies and leads to hormonal imbalances, weight management issues (studies have shown that children who drank skim or 1% milk gained more weight than those who drank 2% milk and that fattier milk is linked to a lower risk of weight gain in adult women!), increased acne (especially skim milk seems to have the strongest effect), etc. Once again, real, whole foods win!

Finally, if you choose to forgo milk and prefer the plant-based alternatives, nutrition-wise soy milk is the one that comes out on top and has been declared the winner by various scientific reviews. Whichever way you choose to go, make sure to read the labels and ingredient lists carefully. You want to make sure you opt for an organic product and that it doesn’t contain too many added ingredients such as carrageenan, an additive derived from seaweed that is used as a thickener and stabilizer, but has been linked to causing inflammatory gastrointestinal issues in some people.

You should also always choose a plant-based milk that is fortified in vitamins and minerals (our calcium and vitamin D needs are high and there are not many food sources that are rich in these nutrients, so choosing an enriched/fortified plant beverage is important) and that is plain and unsweetened! Some chocolate flavored versions may have as much sugar as an equal serving of Coca Cola! If you don’t like unflavored varieties, at most try an unsweetened vanilla. Finally, due to the vitamins and minerals being added and naturally present in these alternatives, make sure to give your carton a quick shake prior to serving yourself in order to ensure you cup provides you all the added nutrients!

Or why not give making your own plant-based milk at home a try? All you need is a high powered blender, good quality, organic nuts or seeds or grains and water, as well as cheesecloth or ideally a nut milk bag. You can even flavor you homemade beverage with good quality ingredients you choose yourself, like maple syrup, raw honey, vanilla, plus it won’t have all the extra additives and ingredients you’ll find in the store bought versions. Finally, it may even save you a few dollars!


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