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Are plant-based milk substitutes always healthier than cow’s milk?

Browse any dairy aisle in 2021 and you will be overwhelmed by the limitless choice of milk and milk alternatives. Of course, you have your standard dairy milk options: skim, 1%, 2%, and whole milk.

But in recent years, plant-based milks have become the real stars of the show, to the point where retailers have sometimes struggled to keep up with demand.

Made from oats, almonds, hemp seeds, peas or soybeans the list goes on plant based milks will probably add 50 cents more to your latte order and maybe give you the feeling like making a healthy choice.

We know that most milk substitutes are better for the planet than cow’s milk (more on that later). But are plant milks really better for our health?

If you have an allergy or sensitivity to dairy products, plant-based milk is, without a doubt, the best option for you. But what about those of us who have never had a stomach ache from an ice cream cone, who can easily drink a latte made with cow’s milk, and who don’t have any problem afterwards? We contacted experts to find out.

In cow’s milk, watch out for hormones. In vegetable milks, watch out for added sugars and thickeners.

First of all: The experts we consulted said that when it comes to choosing between plant-based and dairy milks, there is no clear winner from a health perspective. Both can be good or bad for you, depending on a variety of factors.

For example, some dairy milks use a lot of hormones in the production of milk. Some plant milks contain added sugar and carrageenan. And then there are individual health needs.

So how can you find the healthiest milk for you?

“All forms of cow’s milk will contain a natural growth hormone. However, some contain a synthetic growth hormone known as rgGH or rbST. … This has been potentially linked to an increased risk of several conditions, including antibiotic resistance. “

– Dr Gretchen San Miguel

“There is no way to decipher what is more harmful or beneficial to human health [in general]because many factors are involved, such as lifestyle, genetics and health history ”, Kylene Bogden, dietitian and wellness consultant for Love Wellness, told HuffPost. But there are ways to figure out what’s best for you as an individual.

“Cow’s milk is a great source of many nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, fatty acids like CLA and omega-3s, potassium, magnesium and more,” said Dr Gretchen San Miguel, vschief physician of Medi-Weightloss, a weight loss channel. “The nutritional profile of plant-based milk is often comparable to that of milk because manufacturers strengthen it with vitamins and minerals. “

With similar nutrient profiles, Bogden and San Miguel both recommend becoming a label sleuth so that you can better understand exactly what is in the milk you are considering.

“All forms of cow’s milk will contain a natural growth hormone,” San Miguel said. “However, some contain a synthetic growth hormone known as rgGH or rbST, which is given to cows to produce more milk, not directly added to the milk. This has been potentially linked to an increased risk of several conditions, including antibiotic resistance. To avoid this, look for a label that says “no rbGH” or “no rbST”. This includes the widely available brands Organic Valley and Horizon.

When it comes to plant-based milks, some add sugar (there’s a decent amount of sugar in cow’s milk that occurs naturally from lactose), and carrageenan is a potentially harmful ingredient added to thicken. and increase shelf life.

“But there are many brands without this ingredient,” San Miguel said. “Some of the more accessible brands are Silk and 365, the Whole Foods private label. ”

Are plant-based milk substitutes always healthier than cow’s milk?THOMAS URBAN via Getty Images

Look carefully at nutrition labels. For example, Blue Diamond’s Almond Breeze contains 7 grams of added sugars.

If you are looking for the healthiest vegetable milk possible, choose one with no added sugar or additives. If you are looking for the healthiest cow’s milk possible, choose one with no added hormones.

Keep your individual health needs in mind

If you’re trying to avoid saturated fat because of heart disease, for example, you’ll probably want to avoid any type of cow’s milk, except skim milk. If you’re watching your carb intake, oat milk (which can contain 15 grams per serving) may not be the best option for you.

“Focus on the basis of your milk. For example, rice and oats will naturally contain more sugar / carbohydrates and less fat than almonds or coconuts, ”Bogden said. “Almonds and coconuts will have more fat and less natural sugar, because oats and rice are grains, and coconut and almonds are nuts. So, depending on your health goals – weight gain, heart health, etc. choose you would choose your milk accordingly.

If you’re trying to make the most eco-friendly choice, go green

The conversation around milk choices and the environment isn’t black and white, but one thing is for sure: cow’s milk is worse for the environment than plant-based milk.

“The environmental impact of a particular ‘milk’ is determined by the climate pollution, land use and water consumption to which it is linked. “ Sujatha bergen, director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “According to researchers from Oxford, cow’s milk is associated with more greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use than rice, soybeans, oats and almond milk. So, all of these herbal alternatives are more environmentally friendly than cow’s milk. ”

In this case, which plant-based milk is the best from an environmental point of view? Mark Driscoll, expert in sustainable development and founder of Taste the future, “Class” below some popular herbal milks.

“Hemp is fast growing, thrives in a variety of soils, and does not require fertilizers or pesticides,” Driscoll said. “It can grow with very little water, pesticides or herbicides. “

“Oat milk production translates to 80% less GHG emissions, 80% less land and 60% less energy consumption compared to cow’s milk,” Driscoll explained. “One problem is that a recent report showed that oats are often contaminated with glyphosate at levels considered unsafe because farmers spray Roundup on the crop just before harvest.”

“Soy is often associated with the destruction of the Amazon, but this is misleading because much of the soybean in South America is used as animal feed in the livestock industry, and not made into milk,” while soybeans for human consumption tend to come from the north. America, Europe or Asia, ”Driscoll said. “Soybeans also use less than a tenth of the water used in the process of making almond milk, making them a good eco-friendly alternative.”

“Almond milk production, which uses huge amounts of water in California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are grown, uses 10% of the total water used in the region, contributing to a drought. devastating effect and a significant drop in the water table. Driscoll said. “It is estimated to be 3.2 gallons of water for a single almond.”

Ultimately, each milk option has its pros and cons. But whether you are looking for the healthiest or the most environmentally friendly option, be sure to study the labels because a lot of important information can be hidden there.


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