Dairy Alternatives

Dairy vs. Dairy Alternatives: the Pros & Cons of Each

Whether you are avoiding dairy because of allergies/sensitivities, are a vegan, or are simply joining the trend, plant-based milk alternatives have become increasingly more popular in America. With so many milk and milk-alternative options available, it can easily become confusing and overwhelming when trying to make a choice. Here are the pros and cons of traditional cow’s milk and several other dairy alternatives.

Pros & Cons of Dairy

Cow’s Milk

  • Pros: Cow’s milk is the best source of protein available. It comes in two forms: whey and casein. According to the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, these proteins help conserve lean muscle mass and improve metabolic health during weight loss. If you consume grass-fed cow’s milk, you will get  2-5 times the anti-inflammatory property effects from Omega-3 fatty acids than grain- or corn-fed cow’s milk. Other benefits include immune support, improved bone health, reduced risk of heart attack, and improved blood sugar control.
  • Cons: Cow’s milk can unfortunately contain antibiotics that may cause problems within our bodies and inflammatory saturated fats. Even though studies link full-fat dairy drinkers to lower BMIs and lower risks of obesity, the saturated fats found in cow’s milk can interfere with our healthy gut bacteria by decreasing the number of good bacteria we have. Dairy is also an extremely common allergen, with digestion problems affecting about 2 in 3 adults. Symptoms are wide-ranging and can include gas, bloating, and congestion.

Pros & Cons of Dairy Alternatives

Almond Milk

  • Pros: Almond milk, created by mixing water with ground almonds, has been around since the Middle Ages. It is naturally very low in calories and contains the highest levels of calcium of any other nut-derived milk alternative. Almond milk is so full of nutrients such as Vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, zinc, potassium, iron, and fiber that it does not need to be fortified with any extra vitamins. It does contain added calcium, which provides more calcium per glass than regular cow’s milk.
  • Cons: The major downfall of almond milk is its protein content. It is significantly lower in protein than regular cow’s milk. If you choose to consume almond milk, be sure to consume other high protein sources throughout your day to ensure needs are being met.

Soy Milk

  • Pros: While there is much debate regarding the effects of soy consumption on the body, there is no definitive evidence proving soy is good or bad for you. It is the least processed of all the non-dairy milks, has the highest amount of protein, and is low in saturated fat. Soy milk is also very available, so it is easy to find.
  • Cons: If you are consuming soy milk every day, the high levels of phytic acid may cause digestive problems. Phytic acid, found in soybeans, can interfere with the absorption of many essential minerals including: calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. The best recommendation would be to choose an organic, non-GMO brand to keep added pesticide consumption to a minimum and nutritional value intact.

Cashew Milk

  • Pros: Cashew milk, created by mixing water-soaked cashews and water, is an excellent source of fiber, antioxidants, copper (which aids in the production and storage of iron) and magnesium (which aids in nerve and muscle function). With its subtle, smooth flavor, it can easily be used in cereals, pudding, coffee, and more. This can be a great milk alternative option for people allergic to soy or wary of the effects of too much soy in the body.
  • Cons: Like almond and rice milk, cashew milk is lower in protein so other sources for protein in the diet must be identified. Be sure to look out for brands that are higher in calcium as well.

Hemp Milk

  • Pros: Hemp milk has a creamy, nutty flavor, is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (which have anti-inflammatory properties), and naturally contains 10 essential amino acids. It is a great source of protein for people who are vegetarian or vegan. Many brands also fortify their hemp milk with several important vitamins. It can easily be used as an allergy-free option for baking and cooking because of its milder flavor. If you have a problem with soy milk, hemp milk may be a great option because it contains less complex sugars, which could cause gas and bloating, than soy milk.
  • Cons: One of the major downfalls of hemp milk is its lower calcium content. Some brands only provide up to 10% of your daily needs, so if you are vegan, be sure to look out for other better sources of calcium such as dark leafy green vegetables and tofu. It also is the most expensive of the dairy alternatives, so that should be taken into account when making your decision.

Coconut Milk

  • Pros: This non-dairy milk is naturally sweet and creamy, which means it is a great option for people who enjoy whole milk or cream. Coconut milk is made with medium-chain triglycerides (fats that are more easily digested), potassium, and is fortified with several important vitamins.
  • Cons: Coconut milk contains a lot of healthy fats; however, moderation is still advised. As much as one cup of coconut milk per day will deliver 20% of the day’s saturated fat intake. Look for unsweetened coconut milk options to keep calories in check.

Rice Milk

  • Pros: Other than rice milk being a lactose-free option for people, it does not have an abundance of pros. It can be a great option for baking when looking to reduce lactose consumption because it holds up well in high heat.
  • Cons: Rice milk does not have a high nutritional value and should be considered the lowest of the milk alternative options for many reasons. For instance, it is highest in sugar than all other dairy alternatives as it is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. It also has the lowest amount of protein per glass. Most brands of rice milk available are also made with carrageenan and vegetables oils, both of which can be inflammatory in the body. Proceed with caution on this one and be sure to look for a low-sugar variety if possible.

Pea Milk

  • Pros: Pea protein-based milk has risen in the ranks of health food stores recently. It can deliver the same amount of protein as a glass of regular cow’s milk. Pea milk is also very low in saturated fat and contains about 50% more calcium than other non-dairy milks, specifically almond milk.
  • Cons: Pea milk uses sunflower oil to give the milk a creamier texture. Sunflower oil is high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which can be inflammatory in the body when consumed in excess. Ripple, a well-known brand of pea protein-based milk, has added Omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory, to attempt to create a balance between the two. This makes the effects not as great, but they are still there. There are several ‘flavors’ of pea milk on the supermarket shelves but be aware of the sugar content of each. The vanilla pea milk contains more grams of sugar (both added and natural) than regular cow’s milk.

Whether you are avoiding dairy for medical or personal reasons, there are a lot of confusing dairy alternative options available in the supermarkets these days. Now that you know a little bit more about the most common non-dairy milks, you can explore your options stress free! Which one looks good to you?

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Sarah Brunner Registered Dietician at Elite Sports Clubs

Written by Sarah Brunner, RDN, CD; Elite Sports Clubs Registered Dietitian

Sarah is certified in food allergies/intolerances and nutritional counseling, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; has a certificate in Dietetics from Mount Mary University; and a BA in Education and Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. 

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This information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material in this article is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health program.

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