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Food vs. Food: Milk — To Dairy or Not to Dairy?

For years, if you wanted milk on your cereal or in your coffee, cow’s milk was your only option. But take a trip down the supermarket dairy aisle, and you’ll find a veritable herd of plant-based milk alternatives. There are options made from soybeans, nuts, rice, oats, and even peas!

Udderly confused about whether to stick with traditional cow’s milk or switch to a plant-based milk alternative like soy or almond milk? To help you decide, take a closer look at the key differences:

  • Cow’s milk comes from, you guessed it, cows! It’s naturally rich in nutrients our bodies need, including calcium, protein, potassium, and vitamin B. Whole cow’s milk has the highest amount of fat, while fat free (or skim) milk has the lowest.
  • Non-dairy, plant-based milk alternatives are made by grinding beans or nuts and then adding water, vitamins and minerals that don’t occur naturally, and sometimes flavors like vanilla. The amount and type of nutrients added depend on the producer.

Not everyone agrees on what alternatives to cow’s milk should be called. There’s an ongoing debate about whether non-dairy beverages should legally be labeled “milk.”

Reasons to Go Dairy Free

Call them what you want, plant-based milk alternatives are increasingly popular, for a variety of reasons.

Some people can’t consume dairy because they have trouble digesting lactose, a natural sugar found in cow’s milk. For vegetarians and vegans, these alternatives are an obvious way to avoid animal products. Others avoid dairy due to concerns that cows are contributing to climate change because they release harmful methane gas into the atmosphere.

Choosing Plant-Based Milk Alternatives

Whatever the reasons, if you want to moo-ve away from including cow’s milk in your diet, here are important things to consider about plant-based milk alternatives:

  • Nutrition: Plant milk is often lower in fat than cow’s milk. While people may assume plant milks are healthier than cow’s milk, these alternatives often contain added sugars and chemical additives to make them thicker and shelf stable.
  • Taste and texture: Depending on how they’re made, plant milks differ in taste and texture. Soy milk, for example, can have a beany flavor. Non-dairy milk alternatives can be thicker or thinner, or they can be smooth or have a chalky consistency.
  • Environmental impact: Soy, almond, oat, and rice milks require less land and emit fewer greenhouse gases during production. Almond milk, however, requires more water for processing than cow’s milk.
  • Cost: Buying plant milk could mean you’ll spend more money in the long run. Certain brands can cost up to two times more than cow’s milk.

Read the Labels Carefully

When shopping for plant-based milk alternatives, read the labels carefully. Look for options with the highest amounts of nutrients, like calcium and protein, and the least amount of sugar and additives, like thickeners. If you’re concerned about pesticides in your food, consider buying organic plant milk.

Unsweetened soy milk is typically the healthiest choice because it’s closest to cow’s milk in nutritional value. One thing to watch out for: Soy milk can be a good choice if you have nut allergies or are lactose intolerant, but soy has been known to cause allergies in some people.

If you want to control the sugar and other ingredients, try making non-dairy milk at home.

Talk to a Registered Dietitian About Non-dairy Milk Options

Before you make any significant change to your diet — like going dairy free — or if you want to learn more about eating a plant-based diet, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

If you are an Independence Blue Cross member, your health plan may cover six free annual nutrition counseling visits. Check your benefit materials for information about nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian, your primary care provider, or another network provider.

To find participating providers, use our Provider Finder tool or call 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY: 711).


Mary Eileen O'Connor

My personal philosophy about health and well-being is to have simple goals and stick to them — whether it’s drinking more water, working in a few extra steps each day, or just making time to unplug. When I’m not busy writing creative content for a variety of audiences, my favorite ways to unwind include enjoying local arts and culture, reading a good book, and watching TV cooking shows.