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Cow’s Milk vs. Plant-Based Milk: Which is Better?

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Many people choose plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk for themselves or their children because they want or need to avoid dairy. Others believe these non-dairy drinks are healthier than cow’s milk. But a close look at the nutrition profile of these beverages, which include milks made from almonds, soybeans or oats, shows that plant-based milks may not be as healthful as they seem. UH registered dietitian Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, walks us through the most popular non-dairy milks, how they stack up against cow’s milk -- and the potential impact on children’s nutrition.


Transcript

Pete Kenworthy

From the very first days of our lives, our diets included milk, right? Early on, of course, we're talking about breast milk, but very soon thereafter it was cow’s milk. I remember growing up, I had milk with literally every single meal that we had.

Macie Jepson

And I hated milk. So, I, as I grew up, I wondered if I was not going to be healthy, but I hated it. At the same time. We had like two gallons at a time in our house because my brother would come in at any given time and just like chug it right out of the gallon, whole thick milk. And that's really what we had in our house until eventually I think we got 2%. We decided to get fancy, but really there was nothing else to choose from back then at all. And now, well, you've got everything but cow's milk. And I've often wondered why.

Macie Jepson

Hi everybody, I'm Macie Jepson.

Pete Kenworthy

And I'm Pete Kenworthy. And this is Healthy@UH. And today we're diving into the milks. I mean, not literally, right? But we're diving into milk: cow’s milk, almond milk, pea milk. Who knew there was pea milk!  According to a recent article, non-dairy milks reached almost $3 billion in sales last year, that's billion with a B.

Macie Jepson

They're getting my money for sure. I have almond milk right now. I have oat milk. My daughter wants to make her own oat milk. I mean, really the only reason we have regular milk in our house is to cook with. And I mean, it's constantly changing. And I asked my daughter why, and she doesn't know. I mean, she's a vegetarian, but she's like, I don't know. I just heard this sounds good. But it's expensive. And I don't have any room in my fridge anymore because of all the milks. I mean, that's the real problem here. So, let's get down to it. Joining us today is Meghann Featherstun, a University Hospitals registered dietician. Meghann, thanks so much for joining us. Let's start with cow's milk. I mean, is it, is it really the go-to good best thing for us?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, cow's milk is an incredibly nutritionally dense beverage. So that is why we start young kids on drinking cow's milk. It's a rich source of protein. It's high in vitamin D, high in calcium. When we're giving kids whole milk, it's also high in fat, which is incredibly important for overall brain development. So, you know, for years and years and years, as soon as, you know, a kid turns one, then we start giving them whole milk until usually about age two. And then sometimes we take them down to 2%, or if we still need that high calorie beverage to help with their growth, we keep them on whole milk. So, you know, over the years, cow's milk has very much been a go-to for children, as to Pete's point, when they're weaning off of breast milk and moving on to more real foods.

Pete Kenworthy

And then you talked about the benefit for kids, but as we grow older, I feel like it changes its value, right? Either it's not as nutritionally beneficial to you. And then does it matter if you're a man or a woman throughout your life, how much benefit milk provides for you?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

I think, you know, as we get older, we diversify our beverage and food intake so we're able to get things like fat, protein, calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus from other sources. So, we don't necessarily have to drink milk in order to get those nutrients into our diet, but it is an option for a lot of people. Particularly we know that a lot of people don't eat enough protein at breakfast. So, if we're doing something like a cow's milk at breakfast, we're adding a great source of protein in there. So, you know, cow’s milk absolutely has its place in our nutrition, but, you know, obviously we can get those types of pieces of our nutrition, the protein, the vitamin D, all these things from other types of foods as well.

Macie Jepson

I read somewhere that it becomes a natural for humans to drink cow's milk their entire lives. We're the only species that drink something other than our species into adulthood. Is there something to that, Meghann?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

You bring up a really good point because I think over the last few years, some of the rise in popularity of these milk alternatives is the fact that cow’s milk does have some sort of stigma around it these days that, to your point, is this something that we need to be drinking for long periods of time? And, you know, I can see both sides of that. I think, you know, there's, it's a very nutrient dense drink for a lot of people, but I don't think we necessarily need to be drinking it. We do see that some people drink too much of it. We do see that people might benefit from drinking some of it. So, I think, you know, it, it can, it has its place, right? I don't think it needs demonized, but at the same time, you know, I don't think that we not all necessarily have to be drinking cow's milk.

Pete Kenworthy

All right. Before we go into the non-dairy milks, let's just kind of put a bow on cow's milk here. Any other pros or cons we should, we should be thinking of?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

I think it's important to remember that when we look at the intake of nutrients, as we age that a lot of teenage females are not meeting the calcium and vitamin D requirements that we need to really make sure that we're building that peak bone mass. So, we know that there's a finite time in our lives that we can build bone mass, and we need to make sure we have the right substrates there to do that. Calcium is a huge one. And when we look at teenage girls, a lot of them are not consuming enough calcium. So, something like drinking milk or a milk product, right, like yogurt, things like that has been really helpful in making sure that they're getting what they need to make sure that we build that bone mass, you know, up until the point when we really can't necessarily be depositing any new bone mass in our lives.

Pete Kenworthy

And that's kind of a great segue right here into the non-dairy milks because they are all fortified with calcium, right? So, let's back up a step and look at these non-dairy milks, the most popular ones being made: almond, oat, soy, coconut, pea and rice. So, how did this start, this non-dairy milk phenomenon? How are they made, first of all? I mean, can you really milk an almond?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

You know, I've had someone tell me before that they shouldn't be called milks. They should be called nut juices. So, I think that's a good way to put it because typically what we do is we put these nuts or these grains and we soak them in water and then we blend them up, right? And then we strain them so that it's, you know, there's no, you know, chunks of nuts or grains left over. And then, to your point, fortify back with some of the things that would make them more comparable to a cow’s milk product.

Macie Jepson

Well, let's talk about the most popular, I would think, and that's almond milk, that's kind of the holy grail of the first of non-cow’s milk, I would think. I mean, on the surface, it makes sense: 37 calories for a cup. I mean, that's a quarter of the amount of whole milk, 96% less saturated fat. I mean, you got to be loving this Meghann, right? You probably have some in your house.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Yeah. It's like almond water, right? Personally, I put almond milk in my coffee. That's just what I prefer. I think it tastes great. But the things to be aware of when it comes to almond milk is it's very, very, very low in protein. So, there's only like one gram of protein per cup. So, if we're trying to make sure we're getting protein in whatever meal we're consuming the almond milk, our almond milk is not going to be that source for us. However, it will have vitamin D; it will have calcium. The other thing we want to be aware of with almond milk and other types of milk is we have a sweetened and we have an unsweetened version, right? So, if we don't want to be consuming too much added sugar, let's make sure that we're grabbing the unsweetened almond milk.

Pete Kenworthy

How much different is that taste though? Right? I mean, does unsweetened almond milk taste like garbage or does it actually taste okay? I've never had any of these, so I don't know how they compare to drinking cow's milk.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, a sweetened almond milk tastes very, very sweet. It's much more sweet than cow's milk. But the unsweetened, a lot of people will like to get like the vanilla unsweetened variety of things, because then it's going to add just that little bit of vanilla flavor. And then it's just a pretty mild kind of creamy mouthfeel, but no, it's not going to be very sweet.

Pete Kenworthy

And is there any concern with an almond milk for like nut allergies that people have? Yes?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Absolutely Yeah. So, if somebody has an allergy to almonds, they definitely want to stay away.

Pete Kenworthy

Makes sense. I just wanted to make sure we cleared that. Okay. Moving on to oat milk. Apparently, this is one of the fastest growing of the non-dairy milks. What's going on with oat milk?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Oat milk is the trendy milk right now. Personally, I think that it has become very popular because if you're getting it at a coffee joint, it froths beautifully because of the soluble fiber that is in it because it's made from oats. Right? We know oats are high in soluble fibers so when they go to froth it to put it in your latte, it just foams like crazy. So, I personally, I think that's probably why oat milk has become so popular lately. It is also much higher in carbohydrates, so it's actually even higher in carbohydrates than like a cow's milk. Right? And then of course, you know, the almond milk we just talked about is made from almonds, which are low in carbs, so that's going to be a lower carb milk. So, we always want to kind of think back, you know, what's this being made from? And that kind of helps us figure out maybe what some of the, you know, nutritional parameters look like within that type of milk.

Macie Jepson

And then there's soy milk. And this one is really interesting because, I mean, it's really comparable to cow’s milk. Right?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Correct. So, soy milk is going to be the next closest thing to cow's milk. So when, you know, you really look into people who are raising their kids as vegetarians, as more plant-based a lot of times they'll put their children on to soy milk instead of cow's milk, because it is a phenomenal source of protein, just like cow's milk. It also has a little bit of healthy fats in it. It's not quite as high as like a whole milk would be, but you're going to get a little bit of healthy fats in that soy milk. So, I think, soy milk, if you think back was really the original milk alternative back in the day before some of these other things started to come out. So, I don't think soy milk is quite as popular, but, you know, from a dietician’s standpoint you know, soy milk is a phenomenal alternative to cow's milk.

Macie Jepson

It's kind of hard to keep up with the good and bad of soy milk. I remember years ago, Meghann, you know, when my kids were, I was considering formula after breastfeeding, there was an issue. I mean, is that legit? And especially in this form, just as soy milk, is there anything to be concerned about?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, soy milk formula is an awesome alternative, right? But once a kid hits one and they're moving off of something like that onto something like soy milk is completely appropriate, you know, as an alternative.

Macie Jepson

Can you get too much of it in your system? Is there any bad to having that soy in your system?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, you know, they've done a lot of studies on that, right, to make sure that soy protein is as healthy for us. And, you know, if we look at overall heart health, soy protein is actually phenomenal at lowering our cholesterol and helping with overall heart health. So, a lot of people will quote about 25 grams of, of soy protein per day is totally fine. So, if you think about that, you know, a glass of milk, of soy milk has seven grams of protein. So, there's certainly room to include that into a very healthy diet.

Pete Kenworthy

And before we get off of soy milk, I read about these isoflavones in soy milk. It's like an estrogen mimicking compound. Is that, is there good or bad with those?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, they've actually been shown to be beneficial in a lot different people. You know, people with estrogen positive receptor breast cancers, sometimes they're told to stay away from it. But for the vast majority of the population, that's something that we want to be consuming, not something we should be afraid of.

Pete Kenworthy

Awesome. And I only bring up the allergy cause we did it with almonds. Obviously, if you're allergic to soy, you don't want to be drinking soy milk. So, let's move on to coconut milk, which is a naturally sweet milk. And this one actually kind of makes sense to me, right? Cause if you crack open a coconut, there's actually liquid, right, in there in the comes out. And it seems to make sense if you crush up the coconut meat, it turns into a liquid, but, but I would think this one's pretty popular because of the taste of it, for sure. If you, I mean, if you like coconut, right? It's a naturally sweeter milk kind of thing?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Yeah. Coconut milk definitely has a more distinct flavor to it than other things, to your point. You know, if you like coconut, you'll love it. If you hate coconut, you probably won't like it. And it does, it is a little bit higher in fat. The, you know, the coconut milk we buy off the shelf and the can is crazy high in fat, right? But the kind we're buying out of the dairy section in the grocery store is going to be a little bit lower in fat, but all the fat from coconut is saturated fat. So, it is going to be a little higher in saturated fat. So, someone who is trying to lower their cholesterol needs to be watching saturated fat a little more closely. So, I probably would not steer those people towards the coconut milk, you know, but for people who enjoy that and like it, and you know, don't, you know, drink a ton of it, right? I think it can be, you know, another option.

Macie Jepson

Why is the coconut milk in the can different from the coconut milk in the dairy section? Because if you look at the dairy, I get it, cause I have both in my house right now, but if you look at the dairy section and you, it says you're buying coconut milk, but it is different as you mentioned. Why is that? And how is that, Meghann?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

It's watered down. So, the coconut milk is going to be watered down to make it more of the viscosity of normal milk, right? If you've ever poured coconut milk out of the can like the pure coconut milk, it is really thick. I don't think anyone would ever be able to drink that, you know. So, I think they're trying to make it a little more comparable, you know, to the other milk products.

Macie Jepson

All right. So, let's talk about pea milk. I'm just guessing here that that's for cooking or something. I mean, people don't put that in their coffee, do they? I just can't get my head around pea milk. So please explain.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

They do. And this is a new one that's very popular because people are starting to realize, hey, my milk alternatives don't have any protein in them and I need protein. So, you know, to our earlier point, some people choose to stay away from soy milk, which, you know, I don't necessarily agree with, but this is the only other high protein non-dairy milk out there besides soy. So, I think that's kind of where it emerged from was that need of people or the want of people having a higher protein non-dairy milk. So, really what's going on is we're using pea protein and putting that into water and making these pea protein milks. So, you know, the original vegan protein powders were pea protein. So, really we're just kind of making that into a quote/unquote milk from, from that, so that it is a lot higher in protein. So, that's absolutely, you know, the draw with the pea, you know, protein milk, and they do the same thing they do with the almond milk, right? There's a vanilla pea protein milk. And you know, they're, they're actually pretty popular. So, there are a lot of people drinking them, not just, you know, cooking with them.

Macie Jepson

Does it taste okay? I mean, I don't know, Pete, have you tasted it? Meghann, have you? I haven't so I defer to someone else.

Pete Kenworthy

To me, these alternative milks are like these seltzer drinks that are so popular, like the White Claw and the Tru brand. I don't get either of them and I've not, I haven't tried them.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, I've tried all of them. And honestly, I don't think pea protein milk tastes that bad, but the one thing that I've heard from so many people is if you're trying to make something like overnight oats with it, or putting it in your smoothie, it can turn things to concrete very quickly. So, you know, if you think of peas, right, again, they're very high in soluble fiber. And then we've got all this pea protein in there so it thickens things much more quickly than milk or other milk alternatives would. So, a lot of times you have to add more of it or even add some water to thin it down a little bit cause it just gets very, very thick.

Pete Kenworthy

Okay. So, we have one milk to go. It is rice milk. And when I first saw this as a non-dairy milk, I assumed it was from white rice, but it's actually not, right? It's a, rice milk is made from brown rice?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Honestly, I've seen it made from both. So, I'm not sure if there's one that's more prevalent than the other, but yeah, it could be made from either. So, rice milk has been a milk alternative that's been around for years and years and years. It was also one of the original non-dairy milk alternatives. And, you know, from a comparison standpoint, it is super high in carbohydrates and very, very low in protein. I don't see people using it very often, truthfully. It's not a super popular one by any means. And so I, you know, I don't think it's one that most people would run to. You know, people with allergies, you know, might be choosing something like rice milk because very few people are allergic to rice, right? It's usually very tolerated. But aside from that, it's not one that I see very often.

Macie Jepson

You know, Meghann, I'd like to kind of go back to why all of this got started in the first place. And we may not have the answer, but I'm just curious because my gut tells me that the vast majority of people out there drinking these alternatives aren't necessarily lactose intolerant, which is one of the original reasons that we were trying to get away from milk years ago. I wonder if these milks are being marketed to people who are generally against cruelty to animals.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

I think that's a piece of it. You know, the plant-based eating movement is stronger than it's ever been. So, we have now more options of plant-based milks, right? I think those things go hand in hand. And I also think, you know, the estimates are around about two thirds of our population is lactose intolerant. So, lactose-free milk was not super prevalent for a while. So, a lot of these, you know, nut-based, grain-based alternatives became popular, right, for people who were lactose intolerant. Now we have plenty of cow’s milks out there that are lactose-free. So, that's something we can find. But I do think that spurred on some of the generation of these products as well.

Macie Jepson

So, along those lines, I don't think that this is a fad. I think some of this stuff is going to stick around for a while. They're hugely popular. They taste good. So, you know, to kind of wrap it up, Meghann, I guess we want to make sure that these alternatives are giving our body, giving our bodies what they need. I mean, milk does a body good. Right? Do alternative milks do the body good?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

So, I challenge people to take that thought process just one step further to what are we trying to accomplish by drinking this milk or this non-dairy milk? If we're trying to get our protein, we have to make sure that we're either eating or drinking pea milk, soy milk or cow's milk, right? If it's just something that we're trying to water down our coffee with and make it a little less acidic, you know, put whatever you prefer most in there. Or if you're making a smoothie and you're using a protein powder, so you're already getting your protein, you can use a low protein plant-based milk. There's no reason you couldn't, but if you're not using a protein powder and you want more protein, make sure we're, you know, leaning on those. These days, all of these non-dairy milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which is another huge benefit of consuming these things. So, now across the board, no matter which one we choose, we're going to get our calcium and our vitamin D. So, really it kind of reigns in on that protein piece the most.

Macie Jepson

Meghann, you talked a little bit about the flavor adds and what that does for sugar content and calorie content. Do we need to be concerned about naturally occurring sugars in some of these alternatives?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Right. So, every type of non-dairy milk is going to come in a sweetened versus an unsweetened, right? So, obviously the sweetened version has added sugar to it. But you know, to the point of talking about each one of these different non-dairy milks is, you know, some of them are higher in naturally occurring sugar, right? So, the highest would be the rice milk. So, it's going to have about 22 grams of carbohydrates per cup, and then the next one would be your oat milk, right? Again, cause it's coming from something that naturally contains complex carbohydrates so it has about 15 grams of carbohydrates per cup. And then milk falls right after there cause it has naturally occurring lactose, right? Which is the sugar found in milk and it's got about 12 grams per cup. So, the rest of them are going to be pretty low in carbohydrates, and those ones will have a little bit more. And all of those quotes are from the unsweetened varieties, right? You know, when we're choosing those sweetened ones, you know, it's going to have much more added sugar than that.

Pete Kenworthy

From a strict cost perspective. I assume cow’s milk wins, right? It's probably the cheapest of the milks, but doesn't it, it also still has the most nutrients, right? If you're not lactose intolerant and you have your choice of any of these milks and non-dairy milks, cow’s milk wins?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

One hundred percent. So, if we're looking at like the nutrient density versus cost, cow’s milk is always going to win.

Macie Jepson

So, at the end of the day, and we touched on this already, but we know our little ones need milk, but do we all need milk?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

No, I don't think we do. So, personally, I have two kids. One of them loves to drink milk. One of them hates it, you know? So, I just make sure that we're picking up the gaps behind, you know, what we need and making sure we're getting our calcium; we're getting our vitamin D; we're getting our protein. And you know, to our earlier point, we can get those from other food sources.

Pete Kenworthy

So, just to be clear, we do need milk up to a certain age and then we don't need it anymore. Is that what you're saying? Or do we not need it? I mean, I feel like pediatricians say, right, milk up to a certain point and then it doesn't really do much.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

They absolutely do. And I think for most people, it's the easiest way to meet our kids’ calcium vitamin D and protein needs and those healthy fats, too, when they're younger. So’ I think it's easy to use milk. Do we have to? No. But we need to make sure that we're planning to get those nutrients somewhere else.

Macie Jepson

But Meghann, as an adult woman, I still need my calcium, right?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Absolutely. It's incredibly important that as adult females, we get our calcium two to three times throughout the day. So not all at once, right? We can't absorb it all at once. So, you know, we can do that in multiple different ways. We can do it through the cow’s milk. We can do it for non-dairy milk. We can do it through different types of food sources. So, you know, all of these are an option to help us get that calcium that we need.

Macie Jepson

Well, we covered a lot here and I like it. I know so much more now about what is taking up space in my refrigerator and what's taking money out of my bank account. Meghann, thank you for that. Any parting thoughts on milk?

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

I think you're right. Some of them are very expensive, but no. You know, the parting thought is this, that it's a personal choice what type of milk or non-dairy milk you choose, but just educate yourself on what that choice is providing you from a nutritional standpoint.

Pete Kenworthy

Meghann Featherstun, a registered dietician with University Hospitals, thanks so much.

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Thanks for having me guys.

Pete Kenworthy

Remember, you can find and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Google podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Search University Hospitals or Healthy@UH, depending on where you subscribe.

Macie Jepson

And for more health news, advice from our medical experts and Healthy@UH podcasts, go to UHHospitals.org/blog.

 

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