pros and cons of milk alternatives

Pros and Cons of Milk Alternatives

By April Schetler, MS, RD, FAND, Registered Dietitian & Director of Clinical Operations
Virtua Medical Nutrition Therapy, Virtua Diabetes Care

Got milk? If you’re like many Americans, the answer is no. Cow’s milk faces competition from an increasing array of trendy options – soy, rice, almond, coconut and hemp – boasting “new and improved” nutritional formulations and flavors.

And now, with the Milk Processor Education Program dropping its ultra-recognizable “Got Milk?” marketing campaign, milk may further migrate toward the back of consumers’ minds and shopping carts.

Why – Or Why Not – Move Away from Cow’s Milk?

The anti-milk message isn’t a new one. Health and environmental concerns about cow’s milk have populated mainstream and medical literature since the 1960s or earlier, and researchers still draw conflicting conclusions from contemporary studies.

Current complaints echo the old ones:

  • High fat and cholesterol content (for whole milk) 
  • Excessive protein levels that’re better suited to baby calves 
  • Inhumane treatment of cows 
  • The burden on land required for cattle grazing

Add in the argument that humans act unnaturally by drinking the milk of another species, and you’ve got a recipe for milk phobia.

But I would counter that the media dramatically overplays fears about cow’s milk. I strongly recommend the non-fat milk for anyone who doesn’t suffer from dairy allergies or intolerance.

I think the move away from cow’s milk is a fad. The media has made nutrition a very confusing topic, and I don’t know that people do their own research. They just read an article and react.

The Cons of Milk Alternatives

The main problem with the alternatives is their protein deficiency and often complete lack of calcium and Vitamin D, which is important for skin health.

Soy comes closest to cow’s milk in term of protein, but even soy, like the other alternatives, has to be fortified with calcium and Vitamin D to reach beneficial levels.

Read the label and compare protein, nutrients and fat in skim milk versus the milk you’re considering buying. Coconut milk, for example, has as much fat as whole milk.

Also look at the sugar content. Only buy unsweetened alternatives. Cow’s milk doesn’t contain added sugar and neither should your plant milk.

You’ll also want to research the possible side-effects of your milk alternative. Soy milk proves the most controversial alternative. The medical debate rages on:

  • Does soy pump men full of estrogen and/or lower their testosterone? 
  • Does it cause breast cancer in women? 
  • Does it reduce cholesterol and provide the needed fiber and fatty acids that traditional milk doesn’t?

Altogether, scientific evidence finds that naturally occurring soy is healthy and not harmful for adults, though you should consider avoiding the isolated soy compounds that make up supplements.

Pros of Milk Alternatives

There are other reasons to potentially favor alternative milks. Namely, the growth hormones and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are in cow’s milk.

Even though there’s currently no genetic modification of cows, fish or poultry approved for eating, most large dairy operations in the United States sustain their cattle with genetically modified feed. So unless you’re buying organic cow’s milk, there’s a chance you’re exposing yourself to the risk of cellular damage.

On the other hand, the FDA hasn’t approved GMO rice for human consumption, and although most American soy crops do undergo genetic modification, most of the major soy milk brands have sworn off modified crops. There is currently no GMO production of coconuts or hemp, and at least two major almond milk companies have signed a non-GMO pledge.

As for the man-made hormone that increases milk production in cattle, bovine growth hormone (rBGH), it’s been legal in this country since 1993. The European Union bans rBGH for milk cows, and the science remains inconclusive as to whether these hormones increase cancer risk or resistance to antibiotics in humans.

Despite its legality, most supermarkets stopped selling milk produced by rBGH-treated cows after an outcry erupted at the end of the last century, and the USDA reported in 2007 that fewer than 1 in 5 cows receive rBGH injections.

Final Thoughts

So should you keep drinking cow’s milk?

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents against feeding it to infants less than 12 months old because they can’t easily digest it, the USDA recommends 3 cups of low-fat or skim milk per day for adults and kids older than age 8.

Unless you are lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy, or just don’t prefer the taste, there’s no real benefit to avoiding cow’s milk. 

Get Help Eating Healthy

Healthy eating can lead to an improved quality of life. Virtua offers nutrition services that can help you reach your individual nutrition goals and achieve a healthier lifestyle. Call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to make an appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian. 

Updated December 15, 2020

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