Ever wonder what the difference between cow’s milk and plant based milk really is? Wonder which plant based milk is best? In this blog post we will go over the pros and cons of each type of milk so you can make the right choice for you!
Types Of Dairy & Plant Based Milks To Be Reviewed:
We will start with cow’s milk and then go through the different types of plant based milks available. The complete list we’ll be going through is:
- Fairlife (a type of cow’s milk)
At the end of this post I’ll give you the final “winners” in the following categories:
- Overall nutritional profile
- Environmental Impact
- Most budget friendly
So, if you just want that and don’t want to know the ins and outs of each, you can just scroll to the bottom of this post!
And if you’re looking for more info on a plant based diet in general you might want to checkout my whole food plant based diet review!
Alright, without further ado, let’s dive on in!
- Pros: affordable, complete nutritional profile (provides carbs, fat and protein), provides the highest quality, most bioavailable protein
- Cons: may have a negative environmental impact, may not be tolerated by those with lactose intolerance/milk protein allergies, shorter shelf life
- Average Cost: $0.11/1 cup serving
Cow’s milks is a staple food for many households and can be considered the most “typical” of the milks. Cow’s milk comes in a variety of options such as 0% fat, low-fat (1-2%), or whole milk (~3-4%). Cow’s milk is the most “complete” of all milks, providing a mix of all macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein). This variety of nutrients allows for this milk to help sustain your body usually for longer periods of time. One of my fave ways to use whole milk is in my super filling banana protein shake!
Additionally, animal protein sources, which includes cow’s milk, are considered “complete proteins”. These types of protein are highly bi-available (our bodies are readily able to use them) and they contain all of the essential amino acids our bodies need.
You can find cow’s milk in a variety of fat contents ranging from 0- 3 to 4%. Fat can be very flavorful so the taste of milks with varying fat contents can be striking to some, causing a highly preferred type of milk. While you might think that lower fat is “healthier” I would challenge that. Fat is not a bad macronutrient, our bodies need it for a variety of reasons such as actually absorbing some nutrients that are only fat soluble. It contributes to the taste, like I said, as well as helping you feel full and satisfied for longer.
Cow’s milk does contain saturated fat (SFA), which is a type of fat that has previously been linked to negative health status. A lot of research has been done on this over the past few years and we’re starting to learn that fats, like dairy, that may contain SFA and cholesterol, may not be as bad for our health as we once thought. One study actually showed an inverse relationship between dairy and cardiovascular health. This may also be due to the fact that milk and dairy products have also been associated with an increase in HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and blood pressure reduction. Essentially, the pro VS con could be seen as sort of a wash.
When it comes to environmental impact, cow’s milk tends to have a “bad reputation”. One source claims that the dairy industry has the largest greenhouse gas emissions, largest water use, and largest land use compared to other plant-based milks. Now, for this I will say that it highly depends on the farm and their unique practices- so be sure to take that into consideration when thinking about the environmental impact of the cow’s milk brand of your choosing.
Additionally, many people may not be able to properly digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. It’s actually estimated that up to 75% of people will lose the ability to digest lactose as they age. That’s a huge number of people! Now this doesn’t mean you can’t have a single bit of lactose, the tolerance that one person can tolerate can be highly individual. I would be careful with this information though and not trick yourself into thinking you’re lactose intolerant when you may not be. Many people, myself included, use this as a sneak food rule to cut out foods deemed “bad” by diet culture like ice cream, higher calorie milks, etc. in hopes for weight loss. Be honest with yourself and your body.
Lastly, cow’s milk tends to have a shorter shelf like than other, plant-based milks. Organic milk may last longer because there is a different process used to preserve it. Additionally, organic cow’s milk typically has a shorter travel time from farm to store, so this may also contribute to a longer shelf life as well as reduce some of those environmental impacts! You can learn more about this in my organic VS non organic blog post.
Key Cow’s Milk Takeaways: I personally don’t think drinking cow’s milk is “unhealthy”. You may choose to consider things like environmental impact and taste when deciding on your milk. Consuming dairy products, like cow’s milk, a few times a day typical is nothing to worry about. So if you enjoy it, enjoy it!
- Pros: lactose-free, higher protein content
- Cons: longer shelf life
- Cost: $0.48/serving
Fairlife milk is a type of cow’s milk that undergoes a filtration process that “removes most of the lactose converts remaining lactose into lactase enzyme which makes them lactose-free”. This also results in a higher protein content than the 8g of typical cow’s milk, bringing it to 13g. Fairlife milk is also ultra-pasteurized which allows for a longer shelf life than typical cow’s milk.
Fairlife has been under fire for their treatment of their animals, which is said to be less than humane. The company seems to be making this right. However it is something to take into consideration when choosing what milks to purchase, just like environmental impact may be of importance to you.
Key Fairlife Milk Takeaways: Fairlife may make a good option for those with lactose intolerance or those looking for a higher protein content. It’s more expensive than cow’s milk, so it would need to fit one’s budget. I think it also has a creamier taste as opposed to typical cow’s milk, so if that is what you’re looking for this may be a good option for you.
- Pros: closest nutrient profile to cow’s milk, anti-cancer properties, cardiovascular health benefits, environmentally friendly
- Cons: may have a “bean”y flavor
- Average Cost: $0.39/1 cup serving
Soy milk is considered the “runner up” regarding nutrition profile to cow’s milk. It has comparable protein content and also contributes some fat and carbs. Many soy milks are also fortified with things like calcium and vitamin D, bringing them even closer to the nutritional profile of cow’s milk. Soy milk is lower in, for example leucine, than cow’s milk, which is one of the essential highly bioavailable amino acids found in cow’s milk, however I wouldn’t let this stop you from choosing soy milk. If you are consuming a wide variety of foods each day you’ll likely get some of that amino acid from other areas creating that “complete protein”.
Soy milk also has a slew of health promoting benefits such as anti-cancer properties due to the isoflavones, increase bone health and calcium absorption, provides a good source of essential MUFA and PUFA which are considered good for cardiovascular health.
In terms of the environment, soy milk is super fabulous! It has some of the lowest emissions and water usage, making it highly sustainable. There is, however, some concern for deforestation.
One common misconception is that soy is harmful, particularly due to the fact that it contains a plant estrogen called phytoestrogen. They can have both estrogen and anti-estrogen effects. A couple areas of concern are increased risk for breast cancer and feminization in men.
Studies have shown that there is no link to soy increasing breast cancer risk, some actually show that it can be protective! As for the feminization in men, most studies have been done on rats, not humans and reported human hormone changes were reported from those consuming huge amounts of soy, like 3 quarts per day!
One interesting thing to note about soy is that women in menopause produce lower levels of estrogen and one study actually showed a link between phytoestrogens and less hot flashes in menopausal women.
Overall in regards to phytoestrogens, research is ever evolving, however consuming typical amounts (not those 3 quarts of soy milk a day!) is typically totally fine and nothing to stress over.
The last piece I have to say about soy is that you may or may not like taste! It does have a lightly soybean like taste, so try it and see!
Key Soy Milk Takeaways: I love soy milk, personally! I love that it can be more eco-friendly while still providing a fabulous nutritional profile.
- Pros: very popular and highly available, provides more vitamin E than other plant based milks, less carbon dioxide emission as compared to cow’s milk
- Cons: provides less protein, lower in B vitamins and essential fatty acids, requires a lot of water to grow (negative environmental impact)
- Cost: $0.39/1 cup
Since 2019 almond milk is the most popular non dairy milk alternative. This makes this type of milk very readily available to purchase in most grocery stores.
Nutritionally, almond milk is quite different from the standard of cow’s milk. It provides very low amounts of calories, fat, carbs and protein. For example, it has typically ~35 calories per serving (unsweetened) VS the~100-150 calories that milk provides. And while diet culture has told us “low calorie = good” that’s just not true. Calories are energy for our bodies, they need them. The protein content is typically about 0-1g VS the 8g that milk provides. Protein is a key nutrient and really helps you feel satisfied and stay full longer.
I actually think almond milk is more comparable to water in terms of nutrition than it is to milk. I’m not anti-almond milk or think that anyone is automatically dieting and trying to cut calories by drinking it- however a lot of people DO use it that way. I could see almond milk being a great option if you’re making a smoothie that you’re loading up with nut butter, fruit and maybe some greek yogurt or protein powder, where you are already getting those protein/fat/carbs that your body wants and needs. But using almond milk without other sources of protein/fat/carbs will likely not sustain you for long.
Due to the water-y-ness of almond milk, that means it’s typically lower in a lot of other nutrients that other milks provide, like B vitamins and essential fatty acids. Many almond milks are however fortified with things like calcium and vitamin D, to bring them closer to the nutrients naturally found in cow’s milk.
Another piece of info about almond milk to bring to light is the environmental impact. Almonds take a lot of water to produce, which can have a negative environmental impact.
Key Almond Milk Takeaways: Almond milk provides way less nutrition as compared to other milks and can be not-so-friendly to the environment. However, it’s readily available alternative to cow’s milk and can be nutritious & tasty when paired with other nutrients like fat and protein.
- Pros: Creamier taste than other nut milks like almond, typically fortified to provide a variety of micronutrients like calcium and vitamin D, it also provides vitamin E
- Cons: Similar to almond milk it doesn’t provide a ton of nutritional value and requires a lot of water to produce
- Price: $0.39/1 cup
Cashew milk is comparable to the pros and cons of almond milk in that it is pretty watery, providing low nutrient density (calories, fat, protein). It does however provide a creamier taste. Which, makes sense when you think about it. Almonds when you eat them plain have a more nutty taste, where as cashews are almost buttery and creamy, ya know?
Key Cashew Milk Takeaways: I put this on par with almond milk and between the two recommend going with taste preference or availability.
- Pros: Environmentally friendly, provides fiber, could easily be made at home
- Cons: Lower in protein than cow’s and soy milk
- Cost: $0.49/1 cup
Oat milk is a newer milk to the market lately and everyone is loving it! It’s super eco-friendly and actually uses the least amount of water to produce. One study done by Oatly, a popular oat milk brand, states that oat milk has 80% lower greenhouse gas emission production, uses 60% less energy, and requires 80% less land use than cow’s milk production.
It doesn’t have quite the same protein content as cow or soy milk, but it does provide more than other plant based milks coming in at ~4g per serving. So, it’s about half of the protein. What it does provide is fiber. Fiber is fabulous for helping you stay full. I have an entire post that breaks down fiber more, which you can read here!
If you want to make this at home Kailey from The Lively Table has a blog post on how-to and a delicious recipe for cinnamon vanilla oat milk! If you do make it at home though, you will miss out on any of those fortified nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.
Key Oat Milk Takeaways: I think it can be so fun to try new products, like oat milk, so I say go for it! I’d consider this a “middle ground” between the nutritional value of almond/cashew milk and soy/cow’s milk.
- Pros: May help raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol, may provide immune boosting benefits, can have a sweeter flavor
- Cons: lower nutrient density (calories and protein)
- Cost: $0.49/cup
For this blog post I am talking about the carton of coconut milk, not the canned stuff. The canned stuff typically is much more dense because less water is added. However, the majority of those who drink it as a “milk” don’t use this, they use the carton so that is what we will discuss here.
Coconut milk overall is comparable to almond and cashew milk. It does have the added nutritional benefits of being higher in fat, particularly lauric acid. This has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol (the “good”) and decrease LDL (the “bad”). The lauric acid may also boost immunity.
Coconut milk typically doesn’t contain protein, which may contribute to feeling hungry fast as it’s just not super nutrient dense.
Key Coconut Milk Takeaways: I love the flavor burst that coconut milk can have. The fats provide a little additional nutrient density over other nut milks like almond or cashew, however I’d still recommend pairing this with a source of protein and additional fat, as the fat content can still be quite low.
- Pros: Comparable protein to cow’s milk, comparatively eco-friendly
- Cons: Less common to find in stores, can be priced higher
- Cost: $0.71/cup
Pea milk is a newer milk on the market. One reason it has gained popularity is because of it’s protein content. Pea milk provides protein around the same amounts as cow’s or soy milk, making it one of the most desirable plant-based option protein wise, about 8g per cup. It also provides higher calcium levels as compared to almond or cashew milk.
Pea milk is also considered an eco-friendly option as it produces one half of the greenhouse gas emissions as cow’s milk does. Additionally, it requires less use of nitrogen fertilizers and as legumes naturally bind nitrogen in the soil.
The downside? It can be tougher to find that other plant based milk alternatives since it is still newer to the market. As a result, it commonly has a higher price tag.
Key Pea Milk Takeaways: This is a great option nutritionally as it is more nutrient dense (providing protein) than some other plant based milks. If it fits in your budget and you want to give it a try, go for it!
- Pros: The most hypoallergenic choice
- Cons: Low in protein and fat (less filling)
- Cost: $0.44/serving
Rice milk is a plant based milk alternative that has been around for a long time. It tends to have a naturally sweeter taste, which some may like. It’s a great option for those who may have soy or almond allergies, making it one of the most hypoallergenic milks out there.
The downsides? It doesn’t provide much fat or protein, typically. This makes the milk less likely to keep you full. It does provide carbs, so it makes it less watery and a little more nutrient dense than other milks like almond.
Key Rice Milk Takeaways: Rice milk may be a great option for those with allergies. I would recommend pairing it with a source of fat and protein to help keep you satisfied.
“Winners” For Plant Based Milk In Each Category
Best Overall Plant Based Milk: Soy
Soy milk has a robust, complete nutritional profile while being more environmentally friendly than cow’s milk. It also has a similar consistency to cow’s milk. Some people, like myself, can’t really taste too much of a “soybean” taste, while others can. Satisfaction is hugely important, so if you don’t like the taste sometimes the best thing you can do is not pick that option- no matter how nutritionally complete it is! In other words, don’t choke it down if you hate it!
Best Eco-Friendly Plant Based Milk Option: Oat
The winner here seems to be oat milk, but it’s kind of a close call between this and soy. This is specifically looking at water requirements, land usage and emissions produced. There are so many other aspects to consider in terms of making a milk eco-friendly, such as travel, so just keep that in mind.
Another think to think about with this is the cost associated with adding in protein and fat to the milk, if you’re looking for a more complete beverage.
Best Budget Friendly Option: Cow’s
Cow’s milk is by far the most affordable option coming in at $0.11/cup. Of the plant based milks it’s a tie between soy, almond and cashew all coming in at $0.39/cup. Obviously this price can vary depending on your grocery store, what is on sale that week, etc. Also something to note, this is just speaking about the money coming out of your pocket right now, it’s not taking into consideration the long term economical impacts from things like the milk’s environmental impact.
A Note On Sweetened Milk
When it comes to picking a sweetened VS unsweetened milk my answer is: it depends. It depends on your personal taste preferences, how you’re using it, how much you’re using it, and how often you’re using it. Personally, I tend to lean towards unsweetened because I typically use it in smoothies where I am getting sweetness from fruit. This is using a little gentle nutrition to say “My body may not feel it’s best if everything I eat has added sugar”.
However, right now? I have sweetened soy milk in my fridge. Why? That was the only option they had. No big deal! The few grams of added sugar is usually nothing to stress over and actually stressing over it does more hard to your health than good by causing food fear, stress, anxiety, and raising cortisol levels. No bueno.
You should also take your own taste preferences into account. Don’t force yourself to chug unsweetened milk if you think it tastes like poo! That’s not satisfying and satisfaction is a HUGE piece of the eating puzzle! Use gentle nutrition in places where you don’t notice a difference, but where you do? Don’t! Get rid of the all or nothing thinking!
Final Thoughts On This Plant Based Milk Review
I think that the “right” milk choice is something that is unique to each person and that it’s something that can change over time. Maybe you go on a soy kick, then try some whole milk, followed by oat. Personally, that is what we do in my house- we switch it up! Each milk has their pros and cons and I think it’s important to consider the way you’re consuming it. For instance, are you drinking it for a source of nutrition (then you may want cow’s or soy) or are you using it for more of a liquid in a smoothie that already has some fat at protein (then a less nutrient dense milk, like cashew, almond or rice might do!).
Leave a comment on this post with which of these milk’s is your go-to! And let me know if there are any others that you’ve tried that are not on this list. I feel like a new plant based milk alternative pops up nearly every week!
And, if you liked this post you may also like my review on “IIFYM” AKA if it fits your macros/flexible dieting!
This blog post was researched with the help of Erin Roy, RD2B