Plant-based milk is better for the environment, but less nutritious

The milk wars continue, with plant-based drinks gaining a cocky reputation as a healthier alternative to dairy milk. Science has a problem with that idea.

In December, CSIRO scientist Dr. Brad Riddout published a paper comparing milk from cows — skim milk, whole cream, or chocolate milk — and found that all three were nutritionally higher than trendy oat milk (not fortified or fortified with calcium).

Dr. Riddout writes, “Chocolate flavored milk provided similar nutrients to regular milk; however, the added sugar reduced the overall score…which was about 20 percent lower than regular milk, but still significantly higher than calcium-fortified oatmeal drink.”

The chocolate milk comparison felt a bit like a stunt – a cheeky way to make a point – as Dairy Australia funded the study in part.

Among the “Conflicts of Interest,” Dr. Riddout on:

“Dairy Australia played no part in conducting the study, and the decision to publish was taken before funding, and the results were known. Dairy Australia played no part in preparing the manuscript.”Plant-based milk is better for the environment, but less nutritious

However, there was no risk that dairy milk would look like a bad choice nutritionally.

Because there is a large and growing body of literature in the respectable news media and scientific journals showing that milk is nutritionally superior to the plant-based milk that cafes charge you that little bit extra for.

Despite this evidence, more people feel that soy, almond, oat, and rice milk are better options.

Cows vs. Plants

According to a helpful Conversation explainer by Leah Dowling, a dietetics lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology, milk provides important nutrients, including calcium, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin (B2), zinc, phosphorus, and iodine.

The amount and quality of cow’s milk proteins are high and contain all nine essential amino acids. Milk is a particularly rich dietary calcium source, vital for bone health.

Research has shown that the body best absorbs and uses calcium from milk and dairy products.

The saturated fats in dairy “do not appear overly problematic for heart health.”

In fact, a large 2018 study involving 21 countries “found that dairy consumption was associated with a lower risk of heart disease and death.”

According to health advice from the Victorian Government, dairy has also been shown to be protective against osteoporosis, colorectal cancer, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Although lactose intolerance is often cited as a reason not to drink milk, lactose-free options exist.

If you drink plant-based milk, choose soy.

In her conversation piece, Ms. Dowling says soy milk is a good non-dairy alternative, a view widely held among scientists.

She cites a 2017 study that “soy significantly outperformed other milk alternatives, including almond, rice, and coconut varieties, in terms of nutritional profile.”

Soy is a good source of vegetable protein, carbohydrates, and B vitamins and, when fortified with calcium, is nutritionally similar to dairy milk.

A BBC report agrees: “Most plant-based milk has a lower protein content and is not a substitute for nutritional protein content. Soy milk is an exception, as it contains all the essential amino acids and almost the same amount of protein.”

Ms. Dowling advises that the body’s ability to absorb and use the added calcium in soy drinks approaches that of dairy milk.

She points to a 2000 study that indicated that calcium from fortified soy drinks was absorbed with 75 percent of the efficiency of calcium from milk but notes that “there seems to be limited data on this.” And the year 2000 is already a while ago.

About the other popular plant-based milk, depending on the brand, you can drink lollipop water with some micronutrient benefits. Oats and rice milk are not recommended for diabetics.

Dairy consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, among other things, while plant-based milk is better for the planet. Photo: Getty

Trendy isn’t always good.

According to a report from the University of Wollongong, almond milk became the best-selling plant-based milk last year.

But Professor Eleanor Beck, Discipline Leader in Nutrition and Dietetics at Wollongong’s School of Medicine, said almond milk “isn’t necessarily the super drink its marketing.”

She said, “although soy milk is closer to cow’s milk, almond milk has a very low protein content. It is also low in carbohydrates, so sugar is often added to it to make it sweeter”.

Professor Beck pointed out that “individuals will jump on whatever trend they think is fashionable or healthy”. Even if it isn’t.

Dr. Brad Riddout of the CSIRO warns in the article mentioned at the beginning of this story against changing one’s diet to follow a trend.

The paper, which isn’t just about milk, makes a technical case for creating an index that rates foods based on their nutritional value.

Higher scores would be given to foods “low in free sugars and rich in nutrients that many Australians don’t get enough of, such as calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, zinc and vitamin A”.

News gear has written repeatedly about the overall poverty of the average Australian diet and addiction to highly processed foods.

Dr. Riddout notes that drinking milk is the most affordable way to fix the nation’s calcium and vitamin deficiencies.

But as Leah Dowling advises, “While dairy milk has a high nutritional value, there’s no reason people should drink it if they choose not to. All the nutrients in milk can be obtained elsewhere in the diet.”

And that’s a good thing for the planet

Dairy farming is heavy on the earth.

It consumes huge amounts of water and land.

To produce one liter of cow’s milk, it is said that about nine square meters of land and about 630 liters of water are needed.

That one liter generates about 3.2 kilograms of greenhouse gases.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, dairy farming generated 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases in 2015, or about three percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN makes the obvious point: “The challenge for policymakers — and for the dairy sector — is how to reduce environmental impacts while continuing to meet society’s needs.”

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Pinterest
Share on WhatsApp
Related posts