Cow's milk has been consumed for centuries around the world. It is an important source of protein and calcium. Increasing incidences of food allergies is a disturbing aspect which also includes an allergy to milk. Milk allergies and lactose intolerance are the two disadvantages to cow’s milk that have pushed the food industry to search for alternatives to dairy milk. This demand for alternative milk sources has been met by developing plant-based milk beverages like soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and coconut milk.
These plant-based alternatives are being promoted as healthy and wholesome, but consumers might need to understand that these are not a direct substitute to cow’s milk. Many of these types of milk don’t meet the nutritional standards of cow’s milk, in terms of both macro and micronutrients.
Cow's milk is the most complete and balanced source of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Studies have also shown that the consumption of cow’s milk is beneficial to the human immune system as it provides an array of defense proteins. It also has an anti-microbial effect on the bacteria that are common to humans and bovine species. Other research has shown a beneficial effect of drinking cow’s milk in infants by reducing the risk of fever and respiratory infections.
Health concerns with cow's milk include the possible presence of pathogens like salmonella and E. coli which can cause human infection and disease. One complication with cow’s milk is a milkallergy, which is the most widely spread allergy in infants and children, though many of these children might outgrow the allergy as they mature. Another important issue associated with the consumption of cow's milk is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a naturally occurring carbohydrate; theonly source of lactose for humans is human or bovine milk. Lactose intolerance is a condition where the enzymes required for digestion of lactose are absent in the digestive tracts of some individuals. It is only common in Asians, Africans, and native Americans.
Cow's milk also has a higher fat and cholesterol content. High amounts of saturated fats may lead to an increase in LDL levels and may prove harmful to the heart. One way to prevent this is by consuming low-fat milk. Lactose-free milk is also available for use in people with lactose intolerance. Milk is processed to break down lactose present in it. Lactose-free milk is still a good source of proteins, vitamins, and calcium.
Soy milk is the best available alternative for cow's milk. It is a rich source of protein and fat. It is most commonly usedby people suffering from milk allergies or lactose intolerance. Soy milk contains higher quantities of poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which are considered good for the heart. It has the highest protein content among all milk alternatives.
One regular complaint with soy milk use has been its beany flavor. Studies have also shown the presence of anti-nutritional factors like phytates in soy milk. Phytates decrease digestion and absorption of various vitamins from the gut. It is considered better to avoid soy milk in patients with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.
Almond milk is very low in calories and mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and hence very beneficial in weight loss and weight management. It is vegan, lactose-free, and rich in vitamin A. It also has an abundance of anti-oxidant vitamins. It has a very low protein content making it less preferable among milk alternatives. It might also contain a substance called carrageenan, which may cause problems related to the digestive system.
Nutritional information for 1 cup/ 8 ounces / 240ml of milk
Vitamin d (µg)
*50 IU or 1.25 µg Vitamin D is present in fortified cow’s milk.
It is understood that milk alternatives cannot reach the nutritional standard of bovine milk and among the available alternatives, soy milk is most advisable except for the issues concerning anti-nutrients. Almond milk has a balanced nutrient profile and better flavor, but the total protein is very low. While taking milk alternatives, care must be taken that sufficient amounts of essential nutrients are made available to the body through other dietary sources.