Over the past decade, the number of people drinking cow’s milk has plummeted – with people dairy exchange for plant-based alternatives, such as oat and almond milk. With new types of plant milks appearing every week, this trend is unlikely to stop anytime soon.
There are a number of reasons people switch from dairy to plant-based alternatives. For one thing, many people are unable to consume dairy products. Not only are around 5% of UK adults are lactose intolerantdairy products are also most common allergen in early childhood.
Another major reason people opt for plant-based dairy alternatives is animal welfare and environmental concerns. Studies show that cow’s milk produces more environmental emissions and requires more land and water use than plant-based dairy alternatives.
But despite being marketed as dairy alternatives, plant-based products may not be exactly the same as dairy. So, if you’re considering making the switch, here are a few things you should know.
Watch out for nutrients
Cow’s milk is a rich source of many important nutrients, such as protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. But many plant-based dairy alternatives don’t naturally contain the same amount of these nutrients and micronutrients as cow’s milk, if at all.
On average, most plant-based alternatives contain almost no protein, while a glass of cow’s milk contains about eight grams of protein. Soy milk is the exception, containing a similar amount of protein per glass as dairy products.
Protein is essential for healthy growth and development. Although everyone needs protein, some groups may need more than others. For example, the elderly need it to maintain muscle strength as they age, and children need it for growth.
On average, most UK adults receive about 15% of their protein intake from dairy products. But if plant-based dairy alternatives are used as like-for-like substitutes, that number could be less than 1.8%. So if you’re switching to plant-based dairy, soy milk may be your best bet for getting protein. If you use other types of plant-based milk substitutes, it will be important to include other protein-rich foods in your diet, such as tofu or eggs, to ensure you are getting enough.
Most plant-based dairy alternatives also don’t naturally contain the same vitamins and minerals as dairy products. As such, many have to add them during the manufacturing process, called “fortification”. It should be noted, however, that any plant-based dairy alternative labeled “organic” will not contain fortified vitamins and minerals, as this would be against regulations.
Calcium is a very important micronutrient found in milk. It is necessary for good bone health, especially in children and adolescents. But my his own research has shown that only 57% of milk alternatives, 63% of yogurt alternatives and 28% of cheese alternatives are fortified with calcium. So to make sure you’re get enough in your diet, check the label and look for calcium-fortified products. Or, focus on eating foods that contain calcium, such as fortified breads and cereals or canned sardines or salmon.
Iodine is another important nutrient, especially for pregnant women and young children as it is important for brain development. It also helps make thyroid hormones, which are important for both growth and metabolism. Although milk and milk products are the main source of dietary iodine, only a small handful of plant-based dairy products are fortified with iodine. Again, it is important to read the product label to see if it has been fortified with iodine or not. Otherwise, favor the consumption of foods containing iodine, such as fish, shellfish or seaweed – or if this is not possible by taking a supplement.
Also look for vitamin B12 in any plant-based dairy alternatives you might buy. This vitamin is essential for the brain, nerves and blood cells. Although some plant-based dairy alternatives contain vitamin B12, most do not, so you will need to focus on getting vitamin B12 from other food sources. Meat generally contains the highest levels of vitamin B12, but if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to consume yeast extract, fortified breakfast cereals or supplements to ensure vitamin B12. consume enough.
Plant-based dairy alternatives aren’t cheap – they almost cost three times the price cow’s milk and other dairy products (such as yogurt). For a family of two adults and one child, the cost of consuming dairy is around £310.89 a year – while plant-based alternatives can cost closer to £856.70 a year. Purchasing fortified private label products can be a cheaper way to avoid dairy while staying on a budget.
But of course, there are many reasons a person may need to switch to plant-based dairy alternatives, whether it’s because of allergies or environmental issues. If you are concerned that you or your child are getting enough vitamins and minerals from your diet after make the change to herbal alternatives, it is worth consulting a dietitian or doctor. Vegetable milks are generally not recommended for children under two years of age. After that, fortified soy milk is probably the best alternative as it will contain important vitamins and minerals, as well as high amounts of protein.
If you prefer other plant-based milk alternatives, look for a fortified one. Avoid rice drinks if you have children under five, as they can contain high levels of arsenic. But thanks to the growing interest in plant-based diets, there are now plenty of choices when it comes to plant-based dairy alternatives – just be sure to read the label before buying one.