Is Plant-Based “Dairy” Healthier Than Regular Dairy?
Many people choose to or need to avoid dairy, with reasons ranging from lactose intolerance to practicing veganism to a simple dislike of milk. Just about a decade ago, your only plant-based option would be soy or almond milk. Today’s selection of plant-based dairy has exploded, with choices ranging from pea to macadamia to cashew to the beloved oat milk. And, not only are there many “milk” options, but we also have access to dairy-free cheese, yogurt, and butter. But are there nutritional differences between plant-based dairy and regular dairy? Let’s find out.
Plant-Based Milk Vs. Cow’s Milk
Cow’s milk and plant-based milk are not nutritionally equivalent. While all plant-based milks will contain differing nutrition, based on which plant they come from, cow’s milk is the winner when it comes to protein, calcium, and vitamin D content. Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein per cup, while the average almond milk has just 1 gram. The most comparable plant-based milk is soy milk, with 7 grams per cup. Plus, not all plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which are found in cow’s milk. (FYI, while the calcium is natural in cow’s milk, the vitamin D is fortified.)
Plant-Based Cheese Vs. Cow’s Cheese
Cow’s (or goat’s) cheese will typically contain slightly fewer calories and carbohydrates with higher protein content than plant-based cheeses. For example, a low-fat shredded mozzarella contains 65 calories, 5 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat, and 2 grams of carbs. A plant-based mozzarella may have 80 calories, 0 grams of protein, 8 grams of carbs, and 5 grams of fat. Another benefit of cow’s cheese is the differing fat options (non-fat, low-fat, or full-fat), which can be difficult to achieve with plant-based cheese.
Plant-based dairy often contains more ingredients, as it requires more work to get that plant to become milk or cheese. Non-dairy yogurt may use oat, coconut, or almonds as the base, with gums (like xantham gum) added for texture. Non-dairy cheeses typically use oils, like coconut or safflower, plus gums, flours, and flavoring to get that unique cheesy texture. On the other hand, cow-based cheese will usually just contain cow’s milk, salt, a “good” bacteria, and rennet, an enzyme.
The Bottom Line:
If you do not like to or cannot consume dairy, you’re in luck, as our modern food system provides you with dozens of dairy-free options ranging from yogurt to ice cream to shredded cheese. If you can eat regular dairy, cow-based milk and cheese supply higher amounts of protein, calcium, and vitamin D, which can help with satiety, bone health, and weight management. If you choose plant-based dairy, check out ingredient labels and nutrition facts to compare brands' protein, calcium, vitamin D, and sugar content.