The Tasty, the Gross, the Nutritious: Milk and Plant-based Alternatives


This is Sarah, Carrie’s intern. I grew up on my family’s agritourism farm, was an extremely involved 4-Her, and showed dairy at the fair. I currently am an agribusiness and applied economics major at Ohio State University. To learn more about me, you can read my introduction post HERE. I have always been interested in milk and plant based alternatives, and I have put together some of the facts for you in this post. 

Let’s talk about milk and plant products! In years past, the only option to pour on your cereal in the morning was milk from a cow, the good stuff. But now, a lot of other options are on the shelves in the grocery store. The FDA defines milk as a liquid secreted from the mammary gland of a mammal, but I am not sure what teat these new milks are coming from. Some examples are almond, rice, soy, hemp, coconut, cashew, and the newest, pea milk (Ripple).

I grew up drinking cow’s milk with almost every meal and have had my fair share of milkstaches over the years. However my mom, bless her heart, can not consume dairy products, so my fridge has also had all the other types of “milks” imaginable in it. I believe coconut is her current favorite based solely on taste. However nutritionally, it may not be the best option.

Humans have been consuming dairy products for over 10,000 years when a genetic mutation occurred to allow the persistence of lactase after maturity. Lactase is a enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk. Due to the health benefits of milk, this mutation had selective pressure to continue. However, not all people have lactase persistence. There are lactose free dairy milk options for those looking for a dairy milk, or the plant based products can be a good option. 

These health benefits are hard to find elsewhere. Most of the milk alternatives do not come close to matching dairy milk nutritional even though they do offer good options for those with allergy problems.

One glass of 1% milk offers 100 calories, 8 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, and 12 grams of sugar. The sugar is a natural occuring sugar. Sugar is never added to white dairy milk. The protein in milk is extremely important building muscle. It serves as a great post workout recovery drink. Calcium and vitamin D are also an extremely important ingredient in milk. Drinking a glass of milk a day is proven to give healthy strong bones. To learn more about what is and isn’t in milk go to THIS post. ($2.99/gallon=$0.02/fl oz)

Almond milk is made from water and ground almonds. While it is fortified to have calcium and vitamin D, it has zero grams of protein. An unsweetened almond milk has 40 calories and 0 grams of sugar while a sweetened almond milk 90 calories and 15 grams of added sugar.  Also there is worry about the amount of water used to grow the almonds. It is not an option for those who are allergic to nuts. ($2.99/half gallon=$0.05/fl oz)

Coconut milk has 45 calories in one serving. Like almond milk, it is fortified for vitamin D and calcium and is not a good source of protein with less than five grams per serving. It has three grams of saturated fat, double the amount in 1% cow milk, which is a large amount of the daily limit. While coconut milk can add flavor to some recipes such as smoothies or pudding, it does not offer close to the same health benefits of milk. ($3.99/half gallon=$0.06/fl oz)

Rice milk has 50 calories and again is low in protein with less than one gram per serving. It is the most easily digestible of all the milks. Rice milk is also very high in carbohydrates making it a bad option for those with diabetes. It can be fortified to contain calcium and vitamin D. ($2.24/32 fl oz=$0.07/fl oz.)

Soy milk’s nutrition is closer to cow’s milk than some of the other options, offering 7 grams of protein and 70 calories. Soy milk is also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. However it is a common allergen and too much soy can result in thyroid problems. More information on soy and thyroid problems can be found HERE. ($3.19/half gallon=$0.05/fl oz.)

Finally, this brings us to the new product, milk from pea protein. The main company producing this product, Ripple, claims that it is “Dairy-Free, as it should be,” which somewhat throws me off because milk should be dairy, not dairy free. This new product is most similar to dairy milk nutritionally, offering the same amount of protein (8 grams) and fortified to have more calcium and vitamin D. One serving of unsweetened has zero grams of sugar and 70 calories and a serving of the sweetened vanilla ripple has 15 grams of sugar and 130 calories. ($4.29/48 fl oz=$0.09/oz)

Cow’s milk is the only milk product that naturally has calcium. All other products must be fortified to have calcium. Studies have shown that the naturally occurring calcium in cow’s milk is easier to absorb by the human body than the added calcium in other products. Dairy milk also is a good source iodine, a common deficiency for humans, while the other products do not naturally have it in the product, nor is it normally fortified.

Milk remains the cheapest, and in my opinion the tastiest option. When comparing all the products, dairy milk is the one with the most straight forward process of making and the least amount of added ingredients. I know I will be continuing to drink my milk from a cow, but for those who wish for a different options, there are plenty of alternatives for you.

Note: All prices are taken from a Target in Madison, WI.

1 Comment on The Tasty, the Gross, the Nutritious: Milk and Plant-based Alternatives

  1. Cindi Kunz
    April 6, 2018 at 5:47 pm (2 years ago)

    This post had very good information about all these drinks including true milk. One thought, we need to STOP calling the alternatives milk since they are not!