Cow’s milk or vegan alternatives?

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Full fat milk, skimmed milk, oat milk, soya milk, almond milk, rice milk. Choosing between them is overwhelming, even though they're all different – except in how they look. But what are these differences and which plant milk is healthier?

Differences between cow’s milk and milk alternatives

From a legal point of view, plant-based milk alternatives have to be labelled and marketed as plant drinks. Why? Because, strictly speaking, plant milk is not milk. There’s no milk if a cow hasn’t been milked. However, people still speak of soya milk, oat milk and almond milk. Because coconut milk was being sold before this law was enacted, it’s the only product that’s allowed to be sold as milk.

Production

Plant milk is made by grinding and puréeing the source plant. The mass is then soaked in plenty of water and filtered. Plant milk is, as the name suggests, purely plant-based and therefore vegan.

Taste

Cow's milk has a creamy consistency due to the fat globules it contains. Plant-based alternatives usually contain fewer fat globules, which makes them more watery.

Nutrients

Cow’s milk is designed to feed growing calves. Accordingly, unlike most milk alternatives, it is rich in protein, calcium, vitamin B2 and vitamin B12, zinc and iodine. For this reason, many manufacturers enrich their plant-based milk drinks with calcium and vitamins.

  • Lactose: Cow’s milk contains milk sugar – known as lactose. Lactose provides energy, but many people also suffer from lactose intolerance.
  • Protein: Cow’s milk is an excellent source of protein, as milk protein is the protein most similar to human protein and therefore the best absorbed, provided the body tolerates it. Soya milk also contains a lot of protein that is well absorbed by the body. The nutritional value of this protein can be increased by eating it in combination with other foods (e.g. rice).
  • Calcium: It’s true that cow’s milk contains calcium. However, the risk of osteoporosis is neither raised nor diminished by consuming milk. Nonetheless, calcium is important for building strong bones which is why it is often added to plant milks.
  • Fatty acids: Most plant-based milk alternatives are rich in valuable unsaturated healthy fatty acids. Cow’s milk, on the other hand, contains more saturated fatty acids.

Vegan milk alternatives: difficult to choose

Nutrition trends have changed radically over the last few years. Demand for plant-based milk alternatives is booming and the range of different milks grows by the day. But what’s the best choice?

Oat milk

From an ecological point of view, this regional drink scores better on balance than cow's milk and its alternatives. It’s also said to have cholesterol-lowering properties. Oat milk is comparatively lower in protein, but higher in fibre and calories than other plant-based alternatives. It also contains gluten. The taste is mild and most similar to cow’s milk.

Soya milk

Soya milk – probably the most popular milk alternative – contains the same amount of protein and half as many calories and carbohydrates as cow's milk. However, soya milk also contains the controversial plant pigments called isoflavones, which are similar to the female hormone oestrogen. Whether isoflavones have a negative or positive effect on humans needs further research. For this reason, babies and toddlers shouldn't drink soya milk.

Not for people with pollen allergies

Soya contains proteins similar to those of the birch tree. This means that consuming soya products can trigger the same allergic reactions caused by a birch pollen allergy.

Almond milk

In comparison to cow’s milk, almond milk contains very little protein, almost no calcium and no minerals, as these are all lost in the production process. On the other hand, almond milk is free of cholesterol and gluten, which makes it ideal for anyone with coeliac disease. Provided it's not artificially sweetened, it’s also low in calories.

Rice milk

Being poor in nutrients, rice milk scores rather poorly in comparison to the other milk alternatives. On the other hand, it contains enough carbohydrates to make it an ideal energy fix when doing sports.

Cow’s milk

Cow's milk contains many essential nutrients for humans. And although cow’s milk doesn’t prevent osteoporosis, the milk protein is easily absorbed, which is good for muscle maintenance. Studies say that it helps young people’s bodies to grow. Nevertheless, many people choose not to consume cow's milk. The reasons are numerous: ecological or ethical aspects play a role, while others cite health reasons as their key incentive.

Is milk unhealthy?

There's an assumption that milk promotes inflammation but this hasn't been adequately proven. Nevertheless, medical practitioners recommend that patients with diseases such as rheumatism or neurodermatitis reduce their milk consumption. Studies have also linked high levels of milk consumption to prostate cancer.

Studies show: 1 glass of milk a day is said to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Cow's milk or milk alternatives?

There is no flat answer to the question of which type of milk is better. The fact that no animal husbandry is required speaks in favour of plant-based milk alternatives. But from an ecological perspective, oat milk is probably the best choice. On the other hand, many milk alternatives on the market are often highly processed products that don't come close to the nutritional content of cow's milk.

Studies contradict themselves

Whether cow's milk is actually healthy – or unhealthy – has yet to be conclusively proven. There are just as many studies in favour of dairy consumption as against it. The general conclusion is that with the exception of vitamin B12, the nutrients contained in milk can also be obtained from vegetable protein sources.

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