In the land of milk and honey, good old-fashioned dairy is still on top - at least so says a recent review published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology this past November. Researchers at McGill University in Canada compared the nutritional content and health benefits of cow's milk to four popular and unsweetened plant-based milk substitutes: soy, rice, coconut, and almond. Cow's milk was the most nutritionally balanced, but if you want to avoid dairy, soy milk came in a close second. Almond milk? Dead last.
Sai Kranthi Vanga, a PhD candidate at the Department of Bioresource Engineering at McGill, and his co-author set out to confirm whether these plant-based milks really were the healthy and wholesome alternatives to cow's milk they have been branded as.
"Yes, each of the milks, including cow's milk, have health benefits that help our body. But, if we are talking about wholesomeness in terms of nutrients, then sadly no. Not all the plant-based milks are wholesome," Vanga told me via email.
Moo juice was considered the best because it had the most even, substantial blend of carbohydrates, fats, and protein, along with being a plentiful source of other nutrients. It also seems to have some germ-fighting potential, thanks to containing proteins that strengthen the immune system against infection. But even with the advent of pasteurization, dairy still remains a common vector for foodborne infections (that risk shoots way up if you go for raw milk). It's also one of the most common allergies around, especially for the young, while certain populations - native Africans and Asians - are almost completely lactose-intolerant.
Image: McGill University
Soy milk, meanwhile, has a great mix of nutrients, including some that might be cancer-preventing. But it is also a common allergy; it provides fewer calories per drink; and some people (including yours truly) are thrown off by the long-lasting aftertaste.
Rice milk is almost as filling as dairy, but it doesn't have as many nutrients and is especially sugary, containing almost three times as many carbohydrates as regular milk. Coconut milk contains plenty of good fats while being low in calories, but has little protein and its nutritional value starts fading away no less than 2 months after first being kept in storage. And almond milk - as others have snarkily noted — has few nutrients to speak of, except for some healthy fats.
Surprisingly, Vanga doesn't have his own preference, nor does he think people should necessarily only drink one type of milk. "It's best if they could rotate and include different kinds of milks in their diets depending on their preference and end use," he said.
Vanga does advocate sticking to the unsweetened kind, since the sweetened or flavored version can almost have as much sugar as your typical soft drink or fruit juice.