From almond and soy to goat, sheep, and cow, the options for dairy and non-dairy milks are seemingly endless. If you don’t tolerate dairy, you’ve likely already switched to a plant-based milk, but is this your only choice? Possibly not! But with all the info out there, how do you really know what’s best for you? Let’s dive into the pros and cons of animal versus plant-based milks—and help you decide what’s right for you.
Cows and Goats and Sheep, Oh My!
While cow’s milk is still the most common animal milk available, we are now seeing more animal-based alternatives on the shelves. For those with a dairy intolerance, goat or sheep milk may be a viable option. Compared to cow’s milk, goat and sheep milk tend to be lower in lactose, which can be the cause of digestive issues.
Goat and sheep milk also contain a different form of casein, a protein found in milk that often causes digestive issues. There are two different forms of casein, A1-beta casein and A2-beta casein. The majority of cows raised in the U.S. produce A1-beta casein. Goat and sheep milk provide A2-beta casein. Research suggests the A1-beta casein may be the cause for many of the digestive concerns associated with dairy. Consuming milk containing A1-beta casein is associated with increased gastrointestinal inflammation and abdominal pain, while consumption of milk containing only A2-beta casein didn’t produce a similar association in recent studies.
Another concern you may have heard about with cow’s milk relates to the synthetic growth hormones rBSTand rBGH. If you look at most milk cartons nowadays, you’ll often see the phrase “from cows not treated with rBST/rBGH.” rBST and rBGH have been used by American dairy farmers to increase milk production for many years. Although these are considered safe by the FDA, there are concerns that milk from cows treated with synthetic growth hormones have higher levels of IGF-1, an inflammatory growth factor that may increase the risk for tumor growth. Fortunately, due to consumer demand, the majority of farmers no longer use synthetic growth hormones to increase milk production—but it’s an important piece of info to know and understand.
What about grass-fed dairy products? Many of the benefits associated with grass-fed dairy products come from the different types of dietary fats they provide. Grass-fed dairy has higher levels of a fatty acid called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). CLA is associated with numerous health benefits, including blood sugar regulation, immune support, and improved bone mass. Additionally, grass-fed dairy tends to provide a greater number of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. While whole milk dairy products are often critiqued for their higher levels of saturated fat, grass-fed dairy is predominantly made from short- and medium-chain saturated fats, which are not associated with heart disease risk.
The increased availability of grass-fed dairy products at mainstream grocery stores reflects the impact consumer demand has on our food system. While grass-fed dairy does provide superior benefits compared with conventional dairy, this is another area where labeling can be deceiving. In 2016, the agricultural marketing branch of the USDA dropped the official definition for grass-fed, meaning the term is no longer regulated and can be open to interpretation. Therefore, it is important to find products that specifically state 100% grass-fed to gain the most benefit.
Milk Made From Plants: What’s the Difference?
Long gone are the days when almond and soy were the only dairy alternatives. Today you can find oat, cashew, flax, and even pea protein-based milk products. With so many different options on the market, it can get confusing knowing which one to choose. While plant-based milks can be a great alternative for those who don’t tolerate dairy, there are noticeable differences between most animal and plant-based milks that should be considered.
While all plant-based milks are made from different ingredients, when comparing unsweetened versions of each, the majority are lower in protein, carbohydrates, and calcium (unless fortified). The exceptions to this are oat milk (higher in carbohydrates), soymilk and pea-protein milk (equivalent amount of protein). Additionally, some dairy milks are fortified with vitamin D, which you will usually not get from plant-based milks.
Choosing a Quality Non-Dairy Milk
While plant-based milks can be a great dairy alternative, they are notorious for adding unnecessary ingredients, such as added sugars and thickeners. The first thing to look for when choosing a plant-based milk is the sugar content. If possible, try to pick the unsweetened variety. Given that most non-dairy alternatives have little protein and/or fat, having the extra sugar will make it more difficult to regulate blood sugar.
Additionally, many dairy alternatives add thickeners, such as carrageenan or vegetable oils, to provide a similar mouth feel as dairy-based milk. While conflicting research exists around the health concerns associated with carrageenan, there are concerns that it may be damaging to our intestinal lining by upregulating inflammation and increasing intestinal permeability. Given that these are closely related to the reasons we caution against cow’s milk for certain people, it’s safe to say we’re better off finding a non-dairy milk that does not contain carrageenan.
Non-Dairy Milk Recommendations
Califia Farms (almond milk): A carrageenan-free, unsweetened almond milk. We also like the Whole Foods unsweetened almond milk.
Eden Foods (organic soy milk): Higher in protein than conventional milk with a very simple list of ingredients (soybeans and water), this is a great option if you tolerate soy and are looking for something with more protein. Contains a small amount of calcium.
Ripple (pea protein milk): This is a good option if you’re looking for a higher-protein, non-dairy milk option. Although it does contain added sugar, the amount is minimal and will be balanced by the protein and fat provided in the milk.
Oatly (oat milk): This is a great option if you have a nut or seed intolerance. It provides a moderate amount of protein, fiber, and fats.
No matter which milk you choose, what’s most important is that you understand it’s benefits and impact on you. If you’re looking for more guidance about what foods might work best for your system, set up a free, 15-minute call with us to learn more!
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.