Both can be included in a healthy and balanced diet, but you should not think of non dairy milk alternatives as substitutes for cow’s nutrient-dense milk. Here's why...
Dairy free milk, dairy alternatives, non dairy milk, plant based milk, vegan milk, milk substitutes. There are many names for the growing amount of products that are sold as non-dairy milk alternatives. ‘Milk alternatives vs cow’s milk’ is a debate that is increasingly taking place both online and offline, and if you Google it, you’ll get tonnes of contradictory information. It can be hard to figure out what is right and wrong about the health benefits of dairy versus non-dairy milk.
You should not think of non dairy milk alternatives as substitutes for cow’s nutrient-dense milk. Some milk alternatives offer very little vitamins or minerals compared to real milk, others are fortified with some of the nutrients naturally present in cow's milk. The nutrients you get from plant based milk alternatives vary from product to product, while nutrients in cow’s milk are consistent.
What is plant based milk?
A vegan non dairy milk alternative can be made from different plants. These are the most common:
- Soy drink
- Almond drink
- Oat drink
- Rice drink
Plant based milk alternatives are often compared to milk, because they are used in situations where people would traditionally use milk - as a drink, on cereal, in your coffee etc. However, the natural compositions of protein, vitamins and minerals in milk alternatives are different from the one naturally found in cow’s milk. Dairy alternative drinks are made from a small amount of grinded plant material and a lot of water to dissolve it.
So in terms of nutrition and health benefits, you should not think of non-dairy milk alternatives as substitutes for cow’s nutrient-dense milk but rather as different food products in their own right and with their own nutritional profile.
What plant based milk alternative is best?
It's difficult to give a clear answer. The nutritional quality of non-dairy milk alternatives depends on what ingredients the individual milk alternative is based on and which vitamins and minerals are added. You should always look for the nutritional facts on the product labels if you want to make a milk alternative comparison to cow's milk. You should also consider if you want to get your nutrients from fortified products or from wholesome foods that naturally contain protein, vitamins and minerals.
Milk is naturally rich in calcium, which is a mineral that helps you maintain your bones throughout life. Many non-dairy milk drinks are enriched with calcium to match the level of calcium in real milk. They don’t naturally contain vitamin B2 and B12 that are also present in milk.
The amount of protein - a nutrient that can help maintain and build your muscles - is also high in cow's milk with a natural protein content of 3,5g per 100g. Milk alternatives such as oat drinks, almond drinks and rice drinks naturally contain between 0,2g and 1g of protein per 100g. Only soy drink has a protein content that comes close to cow's milk.
While the nutrient content in cow’s milk is consistent, you can’t be certain what nutrients you get in a milk alternative. It varies from product to product, so check the label. Some plant based drinks offer no vitamins or minerals, while other milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and other minerals and vitamins.
Is plant based milk even milk?
No, not really. You might call them non-dairy milk, soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, almond milk etc. and you might use them as a substitute for milk. But plant based drinks are in fact not milk and basically we are talking about two very different types of food. One is cow’s milk without any additives, the other is water with typically no more than 2-10 per cent of highly refined plant material and additives.
But does that really matter? Well, if you are mindful that milk alternatives are not real milk and that the nutritional value of non-dairy milk is different from real milk, then perhaps it's not a big problem. But calling them milk can mislead people to think that they get the same nutritional benefits that real milk provides and that is not the case.
For this reason, food producers are not allowed to use the term milk to sell plant based alternatives. In 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that non-dairy foods cannot be sold in the European Union using terms such as milk, yogurt, butter and cheese. These terms can only be used if the product is made from animal milk. There are some exceptions due to year-long traditions, for example coconut milk, peanut butter and ice cream.
What happens when you stop eating dairy?
What happens if you stop eating dairy from cow's milk is that you will take out some nutrients from your diet that are important to certain body functions, for example maintaining muscles and bones. Make sure to get these nutrients through other food sources if you prefer milk alternatives from plants. Several plant based milk drinks also contain added sugar.
So if you are thinking about giving up dairy and finding a non-dairy milk substitute, there are some things to consider. But it doesn’t have to be either or, though. Milk and dairy have for thousands of years been an central source of nutrients for humans. Both dairy and plant based milk options can be included in a varied diet.
Why does Arla offer non-dairy drinks?
People’s interest in plant-based milk alternatives has increased in recent years. So much so that even Arla, a dairy company owned by dairy farmers, now offer plant based drinks in some of our European markets side by side with our dairy products.
We have always liked to try out different combinations of fruits, herbs, grains and other plant based ingredients in milk based drinks, yogurts and cheeses. And we are always keeping an eye out for new trends.
Plant-based drinks feel like a natural extension of our product range. They are often sold in the dairy aisle, Arla farmers already grow crops like oats and barley that we can use in the products, and we have the facilities to produce and distribute them along with our other products . So why not?
The plant based drinks we offer under the name JÖRĐ are without additives. They are made from a few basic, organic ingredients grown on Nordic fields and produced at Arla’s production site in Esbjerg, Denmark.