The Consumer Education Project of Milk SA

How do dairy alternatives compare with cow’s milk?

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Many different drinks made from seeds, fruits (coconut), nuts (almond), legumes (soybeans), or cereals (rice, oats) are commonly used to replace cow’s milk. Plant-based beverages differ from cow’s milk in nutrient content and they are low particularly in protein, natural calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, iodine, potassium and phosphorus. Plant-based beverages also contains added sugar for taste.

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Beverages made from seeds or fruits, nuts, legumes or cereals are commonly used as alternatives to cow’s milk. Popular choices include coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk and rice or oat milk. The nutritional composition of these plant-based ‘milk’ products depends on the source, methods of processing and fortification, and differs from that of cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is a natural source of well-absorbable and highly bioavailable protein, calcium, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B12, iodine, potassium and phosphorus. Plant-based beverages are not naturally high in nutrients and therefore have to be fortified, specifically with calcium and vitamin B12.

Dairy milk (cow’s milk or goat’s milk) typically contains approximately 3.3% protein, whereas plant-based milk alternatives generally contain around 0.5% protein (this excludes soy milk, which has a protein content similar to that of dairy milk). Cow’s milk is also naturally high in ‘complete’ protein, whereas plant-based beverages contain mostly ‘incomplete’ protein. The protein in cow’s milk also has a higher bioavailability than that of plant-based beverages.

Of the plant-based milk alternatives:

  • soy milk provides the best source of plant protein, but it does not naturally contain calcium and vitamin B12, and is therefore often fortified with these nutrients
  • rice milk is much lower in protein, very high in carbohydrates and has to be fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B12
  • almond milk contains very little protein (just 1 g per glass), but it does contain calcium and vitamins D and E; only limited research is available on the bioavailability and absorbability of the calcium in almond milk
  • coconut milk has little protein and a very high total fat content (11.2 g/100 ml), of which 1.6 g/100 ml is saturated fat, and does not naturally contain calcium.

Some plant-based beverages contain added sugar for taste, while milk naturally contains a sugar called lactose.

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