Cow’s milk v plant-based milks: What are the differences?

Cow's milk alternatives

Moove over cows (pun intended), now there are a large number of plant-based milks (cow’s milk alternatives) available on the supermarket shelf, with new ones popping up regularly. Flavour, taste, texture and mouthfeel may all play a role in your verdict. Cow’s milk is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, particularly bone-building calcium and is packed with slow-releasing energy and muscle-building protein. However, it should be noted that the nutritional values of other milk varieties vary considerably. It’s important to take note of these factors. So, which milk is best for you?   

Lactose-Free Cow’s Milk

Lactose is a carbohydrate that is naturally found in cow’s milk. People who are lactose intolerant are unable to break lactose down into its single constituents – glucose and galactose because they are deficient in lactase, the enzyme required to digest lactose. A fairly recent innovation has been the commercial production of lactose-free milk. This simply contains added lactase to ensure that the digestion of lactose is taken care of for those who lack this enzyme. Therefore lactose-free milk still contains exactly the same amount of carbohydrate, protein, calcium, fat, phosphorous, potassium, vitamins A, D, B2, B5, and B12 as normal milk, it’s just that the lactose has been pre-digested. Pretty nifty, right?

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made from dried soybeans, which are soaked and crushed with water. Soy milk has a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk in that it’s a rich source of protein, carbohydrate, B12 and riboflavin. Encouragingly, it contains less saturated fat (the nasty stuff that raises blood cholesterol) than cow’s milk. However, by itself, it contains very little calcium. It is therefore important to always choose soy milk that has been fortified with added calcium (aim for 250-300mg calcium per 250ml). Soy milk also contains isoflavones known as phytoestrogens. These are natural compounds found in plant foods that mimic the action of the hormone oestrogen. Research indicates that phytoestrogens can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, both known risk factors for heart disease.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is made from ground almonds and water. Unlike cow’s milk, almond milk is naturally lactose-free and contains very little saturated fat. It also contains a number of key nutrients including vitamin E, manganese, zinc and potassium. However, it contains only a moderate amount of calcium and very little protein and therefore may be unsuitable for the elderly (due to higher protein requirements) and unsafe for those with nut allergies. 

Rice Milk

Rice milk is commonly made from brown rice and water. Similar to soy milk and almond milk, rice milk is lactose-free and low in saturated fat. However, unlike cow’s milk, rice milk contains very little protein and calcium but has a higher carbohydrate content, which may not make it a suitable option for diabetics. Nevertheless, it is a safe choice for those with nut or soy allergies and good for those with high energy requirements such as athletes. Most commercially available brands are usually enriched with added nutrients (such as calcium), as rice milk naturally does not contain the breadth of nutrients that cow’s milk has.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is made from whole grain oats and water. It is high in fibre, vitamin E, folate and riboflavin. Like rice milk, it is low in protein and calcium, but it is also high in carbohydrates. Therefore it is unsuitable for most people with diabetes. Additionally, it contains very little protein. Furthermore, it is not appropriate for those with coeliac disease due to the presence of avenin – a gluten-like compound. However, it may be a good option for those with allergies to nuts, soy and/or cow’s milk.

Milk in all its forms is a rich source of energy and nutrients and should be included as part of a healthy diet. Whatever your choice, wear your milk moustache with pride. Bon appétit.

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