Are Plant-Based Milk Alternatives Always Healthier Than Dairy Milk?

The answer is complicated, but a lot depends on who you are. Experts share how to figure out what's best.
Laurie Castelli via Getty Images

Walk through any dairy aisle in 2021 and you’ll be overwhelmed by the boundless choices of milk and milk alternatives. Sure, you’ve got your standard dairy milk options: skim, 1%, 2% and whole milk.

But in recent years, plant-based milks have become the real stars of the show, to the point where retailers have at times struggled to keep up with demand.

Made from oats, almonds, hemp seeds, peas or soy ― the list goes on and on ― plant-based milks will probably add an extra 50 cents to your latte order, and may make you feel like you’re making a healthy choice.

We know that most milk alternatives are better for the planet than dairy milk (more on that later). But are plant-based milks actually better for our health?

If you have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, plant-based milk is, without question, the better option for you. But what about those of us who have never gotten a stomachache from an ice cream cone, who can easily drink a latte made with dairy milk and have no issues afterward? We reached out to experts to find out.

In dairy milk, watch out for hormones. In plant-based milks, watch out for added sugars and thickeners.

First things first: The experts we consulted said that when it comes to choosing between plant-based and dairy milks, there’s no clear winner from a health perspective. Both can be good or bad for you, depending on a variety of factors.

For example, some dairy milks use a lot of hormones in milk production. Some plant-based milks pack added sugar and carrageenan. And then there are individual health needs.

So, how can you find what’s the healthiest milk for you?

“All forms of cow’s milk will contain a natural growth hormone. However some contain a synthetic growth hormone known as rgGH or rbST. ... This has been potentially linked to increased risk of several conditions, including antibiotic resistance.”

- Dr. Gretchen San Miguel

“There is no way to decipher which is more harmful or beneficial to human health [in general], because so many factors are involved, such as lifestyle, genetics and health history,” Kylene Bogden, a registered dietitian and wellness adviser for Love Wellness, told HuffPost. But there are ways to figure out what’s best for you as an individual.

“Cow’s milk is an excellent source of many nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, fatty acids like CLA and Omega-3s, potassium, magnesium and more,” said Dr. Gretchen San Miguel, chief medical officer for Medi-Weightloss, a weight loss chain. “The nutrient profile in plant-based milk is often comparable to milk because manufacturers fortify it with vitamins and minerals.”

With similar nutrient profiles, Bogden and San Miguel both recommend becoming a label sleuth so you can better understand exactly what’s in the milk you’re considering.

“All forms of cow’s milk will contain a natural growth hormone,” San Miguel said. “However some contain a synthetic growth hormone known as rgGH or rbST, which is given to cows to make more milk, not added to milk directly. This has been potentially linked to increased risk of several conditions, including antibiotic resistance.” To avoid this, look for a label that says “rbGH-free” or “rbST-free.” This includes the widely available brands Organic Valley and Horizon.

As for plant-based milks, some add sugar (there is a decent amount of sugar in cow’s milk that occurs naturally from lactose), and carrageenan is a potentially harmful ingredient added to thicken and increase shelf life.

“But there are many brands without this ingredient,” San Miguel said. “Some of the most widely accessible brands are Silk and 365, the Whole Foods private label.”

Look carefully at nutrition labels. For instance, Blue Diamond's Almond Breeze contains 7 grams of added sugars.
THOMAS URBAIN via Getty Images
Look carefully at nutrition labels. For instance, Blue Diamond's Almond Breeze contains 7 grams of added sugars.

If you’re looking for the healthiest possible plant-based milk, pick one without added sugar or additives. If you’re looking for the healthiest possible dairy milk, choose one without added hormones.

Keep your individual health needs in mind

If you’re trying to avoid saturated fat because of a heart condition, for example, you’ll probably want to avoid any type of dairy milk except skim. If you’re watching your carbohydrate intake, oat milk (which can contain 15 grams per serving) may not be the best option for you.

“Focus on the base of your milk. For example, rice and oats will have higher naturally occurring sugar/carbohydrate and less fat vs. almonds or coconuts,” Bogden said. “Almonds and coconuts will have more fat and less naturally occurring sugar, because oats and rice are grains, and coconut and almonds are nuts. So, depending on your health goals ― weight gain, heart health, etc. ― you would choose your milk accordingly.”

If you’re trying to make the most environmentally responsible choice, go plant-based

The conversation surrounding milk choices and the environment isn’t black and white, but one thing’s for sure: Dairy milk is worse for the environment than plant-based milk.

“The environmental impact of a particular ‘milk’ is determined by the climate pollution, land use and water consumption it is linked to,” Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “According to researchers at Oxford, dairy milk is associated with more greenhouse gas emission, water use and land use than rice, soy, oat and almond milk. So, any of these plant-based alternatives are more environmentally friendly than dairy milk.”

In that case, which plant-based milk is best from an environmental standpoint? Mark Driscoll, a sustainability expert and founder of Tasting the Future, “grades” some popular plant-based milks below.

Organic hemp milk: A

“Hemp is fast-growing, thrives in a variety of soils and doesn’t require fertilizers or pesticides,” Driscoll said. “It can grow with the use of very little water, pesticides or herbicides.”

Organic oat milk: B

“The production of oat milk results in 80% lower GHG emissions, 80% less land and 60% less energy use compared to cow’s milk,” Driscoll explained. “One issue is that a recent report showed oats are often contaminated with glyphosate at levels considered unsafe, because farmers spray Roundup on the crop right before harvest.”

Organic soy milk: B

“Soya is often associated with the destruction of the Amazon, however this is misleading because much of the soya from South America is used as feed in the livestock industry, not turned into milk, while soya sourced for human consumption tends to be sourced from North America, Europe or Asia,” Driscoll said. “Soya beans also use less than one-tenth of the water used in the process of making almond milk, making them a good eco-friendly alternative.”

Almond milk: D

“Almond milk production, which uses huge quantities of water from California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are grown, uses 10% of total water used in the region, contributing to a devastating drought and a significant drop in the water table,” Driscoll said. “It is estimated at 3.2 gallons of water for a single almond.”

At the end of the day, each milk option comes with benefits and drawbacks. But whether you’re looking for the healthiest or most environmentally sound option, make sure to study the labels, because there can be a lot of important information hidden there.

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