How does dairy compare to plant alternatives?

If it’s not your work colleague ordering an almond latte, it’s your gym buddy spruiking the latest hemp ‘milk’. Whatever happened to good old cow's milk and when did choosing what to put on your morning cereal get so complicated?

Last updated 24/11/2019

Milk, cheese and yoghurt have long been a part of our culture and that of our ancestors. A large body of science supports the role of these foods in a balanced diet and eating the recommended amounts is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood and type 2 diabetes. Dairy intake is also linked with improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents.i

However, increasingly we’re seeing plant alternatives filling the supermarket fridge which includes those made from soy, nuts, coconut, rice, oat, pea and newer sources like hemp and quinoa. Aside from soy, these products are all relatively new to the market in the last decade and not much is currently known about their effect on our health.

With environmental impact top-of-mind for many Australians, more and more people are considering the sustainability of their food choices. Plant alternatives are perceived to be ‘cleaner and greener’ but what does the science say and can both dairy foods and plant alternatives have a place in our diet?

Let’s talk natural nutrition

Dairy foods are naturally rich in essential nutrients such as high-quality protein, vitamins A, B12 and calcium that are needed throughout our lives.

Meanwhile, plant alternatives are often fortified with nutrients they don’t naturally contain.

According to Accredited Nutritionist and CEO of Nutrition Australia (Vic), Lucinda Hancock, “if you choose non-dairy milks then you should choose those fortified with at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml”. Only plant alternatives that have been fortified to these levels are able to be included as part of the ‘milk, cheese, yoghurt and/or alternatives’ food group in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Science suggests that replacing dairy foods with plant alternatives can have unintended consequences and may contribute lower levels of certain nutrients to the diet such as protein, calcium and vitamin A.ii  

The table below shows how the nutrients in cow’s milk and alternatives stack up.

NUTRITIONAL SNAPSHOT: COW’S MILK AND ALTERNATIVES with added calcium

NUTRITIONAL SNAPSHOT

Cow’s milk is also just that – milk. Some plant alternatives are sweetened with added sugar. Cow’s milk contains the natural sugar lactose however according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this inherent sugar is not associated with health implications.iii

More than just nutrients

While nutrients are important, we don’t eat single nutrients by themselves, we eat whole foods. This means that the nutrient content of a food does not necessarily predict its health properties. In the case of cow’s milk, it’s the combination of the food structure, nutrients and bioactive factors and how they interact with each other that produces the overall effect on health.

Hancock said, “many people associate milk and dairy with calcium and bone building, but dairy foods offer more extensive health benefits and are being linked to a variety of positive health effects such as reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

“It has also been shown that including dairy as part of a balanced diet can protect against weight gain and obesity.”

When it comes to plant alternatives, Hancock said, “there’s not enough science to suggest they provide the same health benefits as cow’s milk”.

What about lactose intolerance?

Many people swap cow’s milk for plant alternatives because they believe or know they have an intolerance.

You don’t need to give up milk and its health benefits if you have lactose intolerance as there are several milk products available that have lactose removed.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines also suggest up to 250ml of cow’s milk may be well tolerated if it’s consumed with other foods or throughout the day.iv Most cheeses contain virtually no lactose and yoghurt contains ‘good’ bacteria that help to digest lactose.

Environmental matters

All food production has an impact and relies in some way on natural resources such as land, water and biodiversity.

However, it’s still possible to make dietary choices that minimise impact while meeting nutritional needs.

According to the CSIRO, Australia’s overconsumption of discretionary or "junk" foods, such as alcohol, confectionery, biscuits and cakes, fried foods and processed meat is not good for the planet and contributes to a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Principal Research Scientist from the CSIRO, Brad Ridoutt, goes on to say “we recently learned that dairy in Australian diets represents around 10% of the carbon footprint and around 15% of the water footprint, which in other words, means that 90% of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from other kinds of foods”.

“We’ve also looked at the water footprint of plant alternatives and some have a lower water footprint, and some have a higher water footprint - so even if you stop drinking cow’s milk, it’s not that simple and there are trade-offs . It’s best if you can consume an appropriate amount of food and avoid wasting it,” he said.

What’s the verdict?

According to Hancock, “if you’re after natural nutrition with proven health benefits, it’s hard to go past cow’s milk”.

“However, if you’re on a vegan diet, where you avoid animal products, or if you simply don’t like the taste of traditional cow’s milk, plant alternatives may be for you. But remember to consider the nutritional balance of your diet,” she said.

And if you’re looking for a healthy diet with a low environmental impact, cut down on junk foods, don’t overeat and avoid wasting food – simple, right!

 

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