Non-dairy milks have certainly become trendy. The sector has grown by 61% since 2012 alone, and new options like almond and oat milk are more widely available. The plant-based alternative have become a staple in the dairy section of the grocery store, with the price of non-dairy milks quite competitive with dairy milk.
So, why are the plant-based milk options so popular and why are people making the switch?
According to a survey taken by Food Navigator, consumers decided to purchase non-dairy milks for flavor (48%), price (37%), source of ingredients (33%), and being all-natural (30%). Over a third (36%) of consumers purchased the milk alternatives for perceived health benefits. While it makes sense for consumers to choose non-dairy products for flavor and price, what about the other options?
Turns out, milk is one of the most nutrient dense foods available! A glass of cow’s milk is loaded with protein, calcium, and potassium – all things we as human beings need in our diet. In fact, a glass of milk averages 8 grams of protein, which is more than a hard boiled egg! The only sugars in milk come from lactose, which is naturally occurring. Milk also comes in varying levels of fat content so consumers can customize their drink to fit their specific dietary needs.
To the contrary, many of the plant-based milk alternatives have varying amounts of nutrients, and might even have lots of added sugar. Soy milk generally has 6 grams of added sugars to help mask the soybean taste. Cashew milk can come with half a teaspoon of cane sugar per serving. Coconut and almond milks barely have any natural protein per serving, unless it is added later during processing. These alternatives can have quite a mixed bag, so checking the label is crucial, especially if you are trying to replace dairy milk entirely.
For those worried about the source of ingredients, dairy milk is generally quite local to the area. With this tool, consumers can find out exactly which dairy produced the milk in their neighborhood store. Because 98% of farms in the United States are family farms, consumers can also be confident that the milk probably came from cows cared for by a local family farm. Once off the farm, milk normally goes through some testing and pasteurization, homogenization, separation and further processing for safety and quality control. Otherwise, it is a very natural product!
If consumers switched to non-dairy alternatives because they are lactose-intolerant, prefer the taste, or price, then the move makes sense. However, for consumers that are just looking for a drink that is “healthier,” milk might be the better option. While none of the alternatives are necessarily unhealthy, they could be lacking in key areas. Again, reading the label and understanding what exactly comes with your plant-based milk is important.
For more information, check out this side-by-side comparison of the different types of “milk” by registered dietitian Samantha Cassetty. The team at Dirt to Dinner have also put together an excellent resource on this topic.