Milk has been around for a long time. It is our first source of nutrition from birth onwards, cementing its important as part of our nutrition through the life cycle. Recently the use of plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk (e.g. oat, soya coconut) has surged. However it’s important to note that cow’s milk & plant-based alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent. In fact, a law was introduced in Europe to ban the use of the word ‘milk’ to market plant-based alternatives, reserving the use of the word for milk produced by animals only!
How are they different?
When it comes to comparing the nutritional value between cow’s milk & plant-based alternatives there are a few things to remember. Cows milk is rich in protein, iodine, potassium & calcium. While the plant-based alternative soya compares in terms of protein content, the protein in cow’s milk is of higher nutritional quality. It is more readily digested in comparison to it’s plant alternative.
Although many plant-based alternatives are fortified to improve their nutritional composition, the type of fortificant used will determine the calcium bioavailability (how well our bodies can absorb & use this calcium) of plant-based alternatives. Most are also devoid of iodine which is important for brain function & development. The carbohydrate component of cow’s milk is the naturally occurring sugar lactose, while many plant-based alternatives contain added sugar or sweeteners.
Cow’s milk is also a really nice choice post-exercise with the combination of protein for muscle repair and fluid & electrolytes for rehydration purposes. Chocolate cow’s milk will also provide additional carbohydrates which is particularly useful after exercise >60 minutes when the body’s stores of carbohydrates may be depleted e.g. competitive match, long endurance run, high-intensity pitch training session
It’s safe to say plant-based alternatives aren’t comparable to cow’s milk based on their nutritional composition. However, they can be a useful product for those who may be lactose intolerant, vegan or simply don’t enjoy the taste of cow’s milk!