by Lilia Combs
Milk and dairy products have long been promoted as the best way to get calcium in our diets. The ‘Got Milk?’ advertisements of the early 2000s are memorable for many students. Recently, however, there has been a lot of backlash against dairy. Like most other trendy nutrition topics, it has become confusing. In addition to the question of whether or not we should consume cow’s milk, an abundance of milk substitutes has flooded the market, all claiming to be better than cow’s milk.
While traditional cow’s milk still dominates the market, research shows U.S. non-dairy milk sales are growing while cow’s milk sales have declined. One only needs to look at the refrigerator case at a grocery store to see that retailers are increasingly stocking more plant-based dairy alternatives.
Plant-based milk is made by grinding a bean or nut, then adding water, flavors, vitamins, and minerals. The nutrients and amount of sugar in plant-based milk vary considerably based on how it was produced and what has been added. Cow’s milk contains protein, calcium, riboflavin, and potassium. The nutrients are consistent in all products, but the amount of fat varies from no fat, low-fat, and full-fat. Calcium-fortified soy milk is the closest to cow’s milk, but it is lower in other nutrients than cow’s milk. Some plant-based milk is very low in protein, which can be a matter of concern for children and the elderly. Plant-based milk is becoming more popular because some people prefer the taste and the variety of flavors. It is also preferred by people who are lactose intolerant, meaning their stomach cannot properly digest dairy.
“I drink almond or soy milk and prefer it over cow’s milk because of lactose intolerance,” sophomore Maddi Zoldyck said.”The common benefits of plant-based alternatives that are lactose-free, cholesterol-free, and low in calories.”
A cup serving of whole milk provides 8 grams of high-quality protein with all of the essential amino acids (60% of the Recommended Daily Allowance for toddlers, and 40% of the RDA for young children). Milk is a good source of vitamin D, calcium, and protein, and as such, includes ingredients that support growth in children. One study found an association between non-cow milk beverage consumption and lower childhood height.
“Plant-based drinks mainly consist of water so their nutrient content is not comparable to the original cereal grain or nut,” sophomore Charlette Harlan said. “Cow’s milk provides all the nutrients to help you grow. This does not work with plant-based alternatives, which lack important vitamins and proteins that the body can metabolize.”
Spending on this alternative milk has risen while consumption of cow’s milk has dropped. Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford, released a study that compared greenhouse gases from over 10,000 farms around the world that produce cows, almonds, coconut, and soy milk. In that study, they found that dairy milk uses 9 times more land to make a liter than a liter of rice, soy, oat, or almond milk.
However, plant-based milk can also have a consequential environmental impact. Almonds require irrigation, exerting tremendous pressure on water resources. Rice emits the most greenhouse gases from the methane that bacteria create in flooded rice paddies. Soy and oat milk require more land, perhaps requiring deforestation depending on where the land is. Dietary changes (for instance, switching from dairy to plant-based diets) and the long-term environmental costs of consumer choices should be considered by agricultural producers.
“Plant-based milks are superior to cow’s milk when it comes to the environment. Plant-based products are less environmentally taxing than animal-based products,” sophomore Rosie Cruz said. “So, if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint, plant-based milk is the best option.”
Knowing if you should drink dairy or plant-based milk totally depends on individual dietary needs, restrictions, concerns, budget, and application. Remember that most plant-based milk is not nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk; if a person drinks milk daily as a primary source of protein and calcium but wants to switch to a plant-based option, they’ll need to choose one with a good source of those nutrients. If a person simply uses milk with their cereal or a splash in their tea, the type of milk matters less.
Cow’s milk shows to be a better option in terms of nutritional value. Plant-based milk provides a solution to animals being used but doesn’t provide the same nutritional value as cow-milk. Cow’s milk provides necessary proteins for the human body, but creates social unrest because of the use of animals. People can choose to drink either, neither, or both. A varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein (including dairy foods) will provide the nutrition needed if a person chooses to drink plant-based over cow’s milk.