Cow’s Milk vs Plant Milks

Ever wondered how do dairy products and their plant-based counterparts match-up? We've done all the hard work for you!

Firstly, let's have a proper look at what any milk actually is - a very watery liquid, around 90 per cent is always water. Therefore, any amount of nutrients it contains is more or less diluted and any health effects depend on how much of it you drink.

 

Sugar with your milk?

As you can see in the comparison table, dairy milk has more sugar than most plant milks. Why is there sugar in plain dairy milk you ask? Milk sugar – lactose – is a natural component of milk. It’s a simple sugar, which means it breaks down fast and is quickly absorbed by your body in the same way as table sugar.

On the other hand, unsweetened plant milks have almost no sugar and even the sweetened varieties are often sweetened with aple juice, which is better for you than sugar.

The lowest in sugar: soya, almond and hemp milks

Nutrient/100g Dairy milk (semi-skimmed) Soya milk

Almond milk

Oat milk Hemp milk Rice milk Coconut milk
Total fat 2g 1.7g 1.1g 0.5-1.5g 2.8g 1g 0.9-2g
Saturated fat 1-1.3g 0.3g 0.1g 0.1-0.2g 0.3g 0.1g 0.9-1.9g
Polyunsaturated (essential) fats 0-0.1g 1g 0.3g 0.7g 2g 0.6g 0g
Protein 3-4g 3g 0.4g 1g 0.6g 0.1g 0.1-0.2g
Sugar (unsweetened)
Sugar (sweetened)
5g
 
0.1g
2.4g
0.1g
3g
4.1g
 
0.1g
1.8g
3.3-7g
 
1.6-1.9g
 
Fibre 0g 0.5g 0.4g 0.8g 0.5g 0.3g 0.1g
Calcium 120mg 120mg 120mg 120mg 118mg 120mg 120mg

 

Floating fats

Dairy milk always contains saturated ‘bad’ fats which are a risk factor for heart disease. In that respect, coconut milk is similar as it’s the only type of plant milk that naturally comes with a higher saturated fat content. All the other plant milks have a healthy fat profile. Hemp milk also comes with an extra dose of essential omega-3 fats, closely followed by soya with its healthy unsaturated fats. Rice, oat and almond milk have the absolutely lowest fat content.

Lowest in fat: soya, almond, oat, hemp and rice milk

 

Packing protein

Protein levels vary and although dairy milk has about the same protein content as soya milk, cow’s milk proteins, such as whey and casein, are difficult for the human body to digest. In fact, they used to make furniture glue out of casein! Soya not only contains a good amount of protein but it’s better protein at that! Soya protein lowers cholesterol and may reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Best for protein: soya milk

 

Liquid calcium 

The amount of calcium you get from most fortified plant milks is the same as from cow’s milk. Not all varieties are fortified, so check the carton! The calcium in dairy milk is why we've been told to drink the white stuff but don't forget that cow’s milk also packs a good dose of hormones and pus by default. No one needs that! 

Best for calcium: all fortified plant milks

 

Roughage in your drink

All plant milks contain some fibre, which is essential to good health, whilst dairy milk never contains any. Fibre helps to keep your digestive tract healthy and can slow down sugar digestion. Soya, almond, hemp and oat milk are best for fibre but oat milk beats the others.

Best for fibre: oat milk

 

Environmental impact

It takes 1,020 litres of water to produce one litre of cow’s milk. To produce the same amount of soya milk, you need 297 litres of water - and even less for other crops such as oats! Almonds drink a bit more but they’re certainly not the culprit behind California’s water crises, as some tabloids claimed - unlike livestock farms!

 

And the winner is?

It’s impossible to pick which plant milk is the best. Ultimately, it comes down to taste because you’re most likely to stick with something you actually enjoy drinking!

The truth is, all plant milks are not just more ethical and sustainable than cow’s milk, they’re also healthier.

 

Dairy yogurt vs soya yogurt

When it comes to yogurt, soya ones are by far the best – providing good amounts of protein, calcium, healthy fat and fibre:

Nutrient/100g Plain low-fat dairy yogurt Alpro plain soya/ soya-almond yogurt
Total fat 1.5g 2.8/2.3g
Saturated fat 1.0g 0.4g
Polyunsaturated (essential) fats 0.044g 1.4g
Protein 5.2g 3.9/4.0g
Sugar 7.0g 2.2/2.1g
Fibre 0.0g 1.1g
Calcium 183mg 120mg

The only thing to watch when it comes to non-dairy yogurts are some coconut ones which have a very high fat content.

 

Want to know more about plant milks?

Read this feature outlining the brief history of plant milks! They've been around for longer than you probably think...

FAQs — Health and Nutrition

What are the best calcium sources? What's important for bone health? And are there hormones in milk?

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