Opinion: there are now many alternatives to cow's milk, but how does plant milk score for nutritional value?

By Zoë A. Popper and Karen L. Bacon, NUI Galway

Government guidelines currently recommend three servings of dairy each day as part of a healthy balanced diet, and the recommendation is for five daily servings for those between nine and 18 years of age. With one serving being equivalent to 200ml milk, 125g yoghurt or 25g of hard cheese, the suggested recommendation is that dairy products make up a considerable proportion of our daily food intake.

As mammals, milk is the first food that most of us will have consumed and, after weaning, there are nutritional benefits to consuming dairy products. Several studies have shown that there is a correlation between height and dairy consumption (genetic makeup also plays a part - some people are just not destined to be tall no matter how much milk they drink).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, dietician Gillian McConnell on whether plant milk is better for your health than cow's milk

One of the reasons why cow's milk and other dairy products are nutritionally important is that they contain proteins, sugars, fats, and many essential vitamins (including A, B2 - riboflavin - and B12) and minerals (including calcium and phosphorous) which are essential for healthy bones and teeth. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause extreme tiredness, nerve damage, breathlessness and dizziness as well as depression and symptoms of dementia. There are several medical reasons B12 deficiency can occur, but an important factor is diet. Vitamin B12 is only found in high levels in foods derived from animals, and milk is a particularly rich source.

Although cow's milk and products derived from it are nutritionally valuable, around 5% of the Irish population, and 35% of people globally, are lactose intolerant and therefore cannot consume milk. Since cow’s milk is sourced from animals, it also cannot be consumed by vegans. While vegans currently account for less than 5% of the population, it's a diet which is rapidly increasing in popularity and Ireland is within the top 10 globally in terms of the number of vegans here. Others simply do not like the taste of milk.

"Generally, plant-based milks fit into one of the following categories: cereal, legume, nut, seed or pseudo-cereal based milk"

Short of pouring orange juice on your cornflakes, what are the alternatives and do they provide similar nutritional benefits to cow's milk? If you take a quick look on your local supermarket shelf, you are likely to find a surprising range of plant-based milks. You probably already know about soy milk and maybe almond or coconut milk but what about oat milk, cashew milk or hemp milk? There are almost endless options.

Generally, plant-based milks fit into one of the following categories: cereal, legume, nut, seed or pseudo-cereal based milk. The idea is that these products can act as a substitute for cows' milk – but is that actually the case? Do they offer the same nutritional value?

Soy has been used for nutrition for over 2,000 years and is a good source of a variety of nutrients, including good fatty acids and phytochemicals that are associated with cholesterol lowering properties. While unfortified soy does not provide high levels of calcium, this offers a good alternative otherwise.

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From ITV's This Morning, what are the best dairy alternatives?

However, other plant-based milks may not provide as good a replacement. Plant-based milks usually have a lower protein content than cow milk, and fat and calcium content varies dramatically between different plant-based milks (even of the same type but different brands). In other cases, they may not have the same level of vitamins or nutrients, or may not be as bioavailable on consumption, meaning that the nutrients do not become available to you when you consume the milk. In other cases, though, plant-based milks can be fortified with calcium in particular to the extent that they provide at least as much as cows' milk.

There is huge variation between different types of plant-based milk. For example, coconut milk can have no calcium and very low protein content, while soy can have no calcium but can have high protein levels and hemp milk tends to have low levels of both. It is, therefore, crucial to understand what is in a plant-based milk and how it suits your specific dietary requirements.

What is important to consider if you are swapping out cow milk is if you need to supplement your diet with anything else to cover any nutritional losses

There are also benefits to plant-based milks depending on which one you chose and why. For example, many have beneficial fat contents; hemp milk contains some (but not all) omega-3 fatty acids and coconut milk contains various compounds that are linked to lower cholesterol.

So, should you chose a plant-based milk over cow milk and if so, which one? Really, you should pick whichever one suits your needs and your wallet. What is important to consider if you are swapping out cow milk is not just which plant-based alternative you prefer, but if you need to supplement your diet with anything else to cover any nutritional losses. In particular watch out for calcium and vitamin B12 levels. Many plant-based milks offer a good substitute for cow milk, but be wary of picking a plant-based milk without looking at the nutritional information. It might taste nice, but it may not provide all of the same benefits as cows' milk.

Dr Zoë A. Popper is a Lecturer and Researcher in the School of Natural Sciences at NUI Galway. Dr Karen L Bacon is a Lecturer in Botany and Plant Sciences at the School of Natural Sciences at NUI Galway


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ