Your health

Dairy or plant-based?

Which type of milk is better for you?

glass of milk

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2016

Buying milk at the store used to be a fairly simple affair. You could choose from whole, low-fat, non-fat or flavoured - and all of it came from a cow.

Today, things are different.

Check out your local grocer these days and chances are you will discover an array of milk alternatives made from plants like soy, rice, almonds, coconuts, oats and even hemp.

The rising popularity of these products can be attributed to a number of things. For example, people who are lactose intolerant - meaning they are unable to digest the natural sugar found in milk - may find it easier to digest plant-based beverages. Others may have an interest in plant-based eating patterns or simply prefer the taste.

With so many options available, consumers are left wondering: Are these plant-based beverages as nutritious as cow's milk?

The answer, as it turns out, depends on the product.

While many plant-based beverages can be considered a healthy choice because they contain essential minerals and vitamins such as calcium, vitamin D and riboflavin, there are some important things to consider when choosing which beverage to buy.

Take sugar content for example. A cup of cow's milk has zero grams of added sugar. However, some flavoured non-dairy beverages can contain significant amounts of added sugar. To cut back on sugar, select "original" or "plain" flavour, rather than sweetened options.

Protein content is also an important consideration.

One 250 ml glass of dairy milk generally has as much protein as an egg - about eight grams. Most plant-based beverages, meanwhile, contain about zero to four grams of protein.

The exception is soy milk, which, at seven grams, has about the same amount of protein as dairy milk. As a result, soy is the only plant-based milk considered nutritious enough to be included in Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide as a healthy alternative to dairy milk. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that none of the plant-based beverages on the market (including soy) are considered to be appropriate substitutes for dairy milk for children less than two years of age.

There are other non-nutritional factors to consider.

For example, plant-based beverages can be expensive - some are close to double the price of cow's milk at around $2.85 per litre.

And then there is the environment.

It is no secret that coconuts and almonds have seen a boom in demand from all over the world. Who doesn't love almonds and everything made from them? Coconut milk, coconut water, oil and sugar are all appealing to consumers who want an alternative to conventional forms of these staples. 

Almonds originally came from Asia and the Middle East, but due to increased demand, California has become a major producer of the crop. Almond trees require warm conditions in winter, tremendous amounts of water, especially during summer, and honey bees to pollinate the blossoms. Many environmentalists are concerned about the resources required to grow almonds. 

Coconuts are native to the tropics and Asia. Food transportation is quickly becoming one of the world's fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Diets that rely heavily on foods that come from other parts of the world contribute enormously to these emissions. Unfortunately, a diet filled with coconut products falls into this category. 

So, what will be your beverage of choice? Before making a choice, make sure you read the nutrition labels of the products in question. You may also want to factor in price and the environment before making a final decision on which product is right for you.

Cheryl Ogaranko is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Milk and alternatives

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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