Real Talk about:

Who Packs The Healthier Punch When Dairy And Plant-based Alternatives Go Head To Head?

Nutritionist, Dr Marianne Walsh takes cow's milk and a range of plant-based alternatives through twelve rounds of nutritional assessment!

She provides some practical advice around making the best choice for your health and your waistline.

What’s the verdict?

If you prefer the taste of an almond latte or an oaty flat-white over a traditional, milky cappuccino, then by all means choose your favourite, but do remember that plant-based dairy alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk. Therefore, they are not an adequate substitution in the overall diet and the shortfall of nutrients should be met through a range of other foods.

Round One – Calories

If you are watching your waistline or tracking your calorie intake, it is important to remember that diet quality becomes even more important when you are eating less. Therefore, we are looking for the milk that provides the most nutrients per calorie. Skimmed milk becomes the best choice here as it has the same nutrients as whole milk, but with only 34 calories per 100ml. Almond and coconut drinks tend to have the least calories, especially the unsweetened versions, but because they are so much lower in protein and lack other nutrients found in milk, they lose some points in this round.

Round Two – Protein

Almond, coconut and rice drinks are out of the race here as they only contain very small amounts of protein. Cow’s milk contains about 3.5g protein per 100ml, which is over six times the amount present in these beverages. However, if you are a fan of the alternatives, the best choice is soy drink as it provides almost the same amount of protein as cow’s milk. Alternatives based on pea have similar amounts but these are not yet widely available.  The protein found in cow’s milk is considered to be the most ‘complete’ so this gives cow’s milk the edge here.

In fact, for comparison a flat white made with semi-skimmed cows milk has 6g of protein while a flat white made with almond milk has 0.9g of protein.

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Round Three – Fat

When it comes to fat, none of these milks or drinks are considered to be high-fat products so the differences are not major unless you are consuming large amounts. At 3.5% fat, whole cow’s milk is generally higher in fat compared to plant-based alternatives but low-fat milk has comparable levels to most of the alternatives. In fact, skimmed cow’s milk is lower in fat (<0.5%) than many of the plant-based drinks. Interestingly, a National Nutrition survey in Ireland found that when people were assessed according to low, medium and high dairy intakes, those with the highest dairy intake were found to have lower body fat and lower waist measurements.

Round Four – Sugar

When it comes to sugar, we generally want to avoid sugar that is added as an ingredient or those naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. Dietary advice to lower sugar intakes is focused on these types of ‘free’ or ‘added’ sugars. This does not include lactose, which is the milk-sugar, naturally present in cow’s milk. Plain cow’s milk has no added sugar. The ‘original’ versions of most of the plant-based alternatives contain added sugar, concentrated fruit juice or other sweeteners so the unsweetened versions are a better option.

Round Five – Calcium

Calcium is calcium, or is it? The naturally occurring form of calcium in cow’s milk is considered to be one of the most bioavailable forms, which means it is well absorbed by the body. Plant-based alternatives are usually fortified with calcium, either calcium carbonate or calcium triphosphate. If choosing an alternative, check the label to make sure it is fortified and try to opt for those that have calcium carbonate, as the bioavailability is closer to that of cow’s milk. Also, as there is a risk that some of the calcium added to plant-based drinks could settle at the bottom of the carton, make sure to avoid losses by shaking the carton well. For more information on the bioavailability of nutrients added to plant-based drinks, check out this recent scientific review.

Round Six – B Vitamins

Cow’s milk naturally provides vitamins B2, B5 and B12. A 250 ml glass of cow’s milk provides almost 90 % of the Daily Reference Intake (2.5 μg) for vitamin B12. With the exception of fortified products, plant foods do not contain vitamin B12, which is an important nutrient that contributes to normal red blood cell formation and normal function of the immune system. Therefore, for vegans that do not consume supplements, it is important that they select plant-based alternatives that have been fortified with vitamin B12.

Round Seven – Vitamin D

This round is a tie! The vitamin D content of cow’s milk naturally varies but in general, it is not considered a good source of the sunshine vitamin, unless it is fortified. The same is the case for plant-based alternatives, although many of the leading brands now have added vitamin D. As vitamin D contributes to the normal absorption of calcium, try to opt for fortified versions, especially if your diet lacks other good sources such as oily fish.

Round Eight – Iodine

The majority of plant-based alternatives currently on the market in do not contain iodine, which is an important mineral found in cow’s milk. In Ireland, 45% of our iodine intake comes from cow’s milk. Iodine contributes to normal cognitive function, growth in children, thyroid function and to the maintenance of normal skin. So, if you are not including white fish or seaweed in your diet, cow’s milk is the best option here.

Round Nine – Additives

Plain cow’s milk is a natural product, composed of the single ingredient, milk, with no colours, preservatives, sweeteners or other ingredients added. Plant-based alternatives are produced by the blending and extraction of plant products such as pulses, nuts or grains in water, with the plant ingredient generally ranging from 2 – 12 %. To improve shelf-life, taste, texture and the suspension of these plant particles in the water solution, additives such as oils, stabilisers, emulsifiers, flavourings, sweeteners and salt are commonly added. Organic or homemade versions are more natural but remember that they are generally not fortified with any essential nutrients.

Round Ten – Health Research

Given that milk products have been part of the European diet for thousands of years, a wealth of research exists, supporting dairy’s impact on health. As plant-based alternatives are relatively new to the market in comparison, evidence to support their health effects (either positive or negative) is still lacking. In some cases, their promotion is strongly linked to the attributes of the raw ingredient rather than to the beverage itself (e.g. the benefits of oats or almonds rather than oat or almond beverage) or to the benefits of a plant-based diet in the wider sense (rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes). Check out this comprehensive scientific paper, which reviews dairy’s impact on health.

Round Eleven – Price

The cost of plant-based alternatives is often up to 100% more expensive per litre compared to cow’s milk. Although, own-brand products are often cheaper, when it comes to affordability, cow’s milk takes the prize.

Round Twelve – Taste

This round will have to be driven by personal choice but considering that over 90% of the Irish population opt for cow’s milk, it is clearly the country’s favourite.

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