Trendy plant milks have seen a boom in recent years, with many choosing to ditch cow’s milk and buy non-dairy alternatives for environmental or ethical reasons.
It is estimated that one in three people in the UK are now buying milk substitutes – largely due to cow’s milk’s huge carbon footprint – producing almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any plant-based alternative.
But recently Cornwall’s Trewithen Dairy launched Britain’s first carbon-neutral milk, Earth Milk, in a bid to encourage Brits to ditch plant milks and back the UK dairy industry.
So if you’re torn between a traditional dairy milk and a plant-based alternative, which should you choose?
Nutritionally speaking, how do vegan-friendly alternatives such as oat, coconut, soy and almond milks stack up?
Speaking to FEMAIL, Dr Macarena Staudenmaier revealed how the vitamin and mineral content of dairy and non-dairy milks are ‘completely different’ and consumers must be aware of additives in non-plant milks.
Meanwhile, nutritionist Kyle Crowley said that in terms of actual nutritional content, ‘cow’s milk is difficult to beat’ and each alternative should be should be chosen based on individual needs.
Speaking to FEMAIL, Dr Macarena Staudenmaier revealed how the vitamin and mineral content of dairy and non-dairy milks are ‘completely different’ and consumers must be aware of additives in non-plant milks
Dr Macarena Staudenmaier, MSc Clinical Innovation Manager at Thriva said: ‘The nutritional elements that can be found in dairy and plant-based milks are simply different.
‘Evidence shows that there are significant differences between dairy and non-dairy products for many nutrients. For example, a study comparing the nutritional composition of dairy vs non-dairy milk in the UK showed that dairy milk has more calories, proteins, saturated fats, Vitamins B2 and B12, calcium and iodine than it’s alternatives, while generally plant based alternatives have a higher fibre content.’
Chief Executive of Dairy UK says plant milks won’t ‘automatically lead to a healthier lifestyle’
Dr Judith Bryans, who is also a nutritionist, said: ‘It is important that consumers are aware that that swapping dairy in favour of alternatives will not in and of itself automatically lead to a healthier diet.
Even with fortification, none of these products can provide the same nutrition as dairy and many will also contain added sugars. Milk, cheese and yogurts are affordable, tasty and accessible ways for us to meet our recommended daily intake for a range of nutrients.
Milk, cheese and yogurts naturally contain high quality protein, calcium, iodine, b vitamins, vitamin A, zinc, and phosphorous – all in one portion. It’s also important to note that some of the vitamins and minerals found in dairy are also those many in the UK are deficient in, such as iodine.
There may be reasons some people choose not to consume dairy and that’s their decision. Many people who buy alternatives do also buy dairy, and they use these products for different reasons. There is always a place in the market for consumer choice but there shouldn’t be a place for pretending that the nutrition in alternatives is identical to that naturally found in dairy.
She explained that the main nutritional elements missing from non-dairy milk are calcium and iodine – revealing the higher fat content in dairy milk is not necessarily a bad thing for overall health.
‘We know that dairy is one of the richest sources of calcium in a non plant-based diet, and while most non-dairy milks are fortified to include added calcium and vitamins, fortification of these is not standardised in the UK.
‘Iodine can also be missing from milk alternatives due to the same reason — iodine is essential for brain development, so it’s especially important for children to consume the right amounts.
‘The lack of standardisation of fortification practices on plant-based milks make it so that the vitamin and mineral content differ between brands and types of dairy substitutes.
‘The higher energy and fat content content of dairy milk does not mean that this is an unhealthier alternative. In fact, evidence has shown that the intake of milk and dairy products is associated with a reduced risk of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease in adults’ colorectal, bladder, gastric and breast cancer.
‘There is still not enough evidence to assess the impact of plant-based milk consumption on long term chronic conditions as the ones mentioned above.’
Kyle Crowley, professional nutritionist and product development manager at abnormal added: ‘In recent years there has been an influx in milk alternatives such as oat milk, soya milk or rice milk. There are pros and cons to both dairy and non-dairy based milks but ultimately, it depends on what works for you and your body.
‘In terms of actual nutritional content, cow’s milk is difficult to beat. It contains higher levels of protein, calcium, and amino acids in comparison to plant-based alternatives.
‘However, when it comes to saturated fat, there is no hiding that cow’s milk has much higher levels than most alternatives such as rice milk (which contains virtually none). There is often significantly less carbohydrates in plant-based milk’s too as well as lower sugar content.’
ANTIBIOTICS, HORMONES AND ADDITIVES
Dr Staudenmaier said that while growth hormones are not used for livestock in the UK, some antibiotics are used to prevent and treat disease in non-organic dairy products.
‘Due to the rising global issue of antimicrobial resistance, dairy producers and animal health industries are working to seek alternative treatments to maintain animal health and welfare. Organic dairy, however, is not sourced from animals treated with antibiotics.
‘Plant-based milks do not contain antibiotics, but can contain additives. These are generally to modify the taste, increase the product shelf life and thicken the milk, many times to resemble dairy milk.
‘Plant-based drinks that contain flavourings, thickeners, vegetable oils and gums are classified as ultra-processed foods, which have been linked to negative health outcomes such as obesity, increased cardiovascular risk and type 2 diabetes.
‘Non-dairy alternatives, particularly soy milk, can also contain certain amounts of phytoestrogens, which have been linked to potential health benefits, as well as health risks, and where the evidence is inconclusive.
‘However, the amounts present in a normal consumption of these products does not seem to have a significant effect on health either way.’
One in three Brits are having vegan milk in their cups of tea as shoppers opt for dairy-free products
A third of us now buy milk that originated from plants, a survey revealed last year.
Some 32 per cent of households in Britain bought dairy-free milk in 2020, up from 23 per cent in 2019 and just 13 per cent in 2017.
Drinks brand Oatly, which carried out the research, said the trend is down to an increased awareness among shoppers.
The Swedish firm says consumers mainly opted for dairy-free alternatives in the past for dietary or health reasons – but many now choose plant-based milk because it has less of an impact on the environment.
Dr Staudenmaier pointed out that plant based milks are better for individuals that suffer from conditions that affect their ability to digest or consume dairy products.
‘These include lactose intolerance — inability of the body to break down lactose into smaller molecules to be absorbed by the body; cow’s milk protein allergy — one of the most common food allergies in children; or FODMAP intolerance — a condition that makes it difficult to digest certain kinds of carbohydrates or sugars.’
OVERALL HEALTH CONTENT
In conclusion, Dr Staudenmaier said: ‘The vitamin and mineral content of dairy and non-dairy milks are completely different.
‘This does not necessarily mean that one option is unhealthier, but rather that we should look towards either fortified plant-based milks or to replace missing elements in other areas of our diet when consuming solely plant-based milks, especially for calcium and iodine.
Dairy milk consumption has been linked to positive health outcomes, particularly amongst chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, while the evidence is insufficient to show these associations with plant-based alternatives.
When consuming plant-based milks, what’s important is to make sure that there are no additives on the ingredient list. These take away from the potential health benefits of non-dairy milk consumption as ultra-processed foods have been linked to negative health outcomes.’
Nutritionist Kyle added: ‘When deciding whether to substitute your milk, you should consider whether you are getting enough of the nutrients offered in cow’s milk in other areas of your diet to do so.
‘Substituting cow’s milk is also helpful for managing dairy intolerances but again you should choose the right alternative according to your needs. Another benefit of substituting your milk is the obvious reduced environmental impact.’