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Cow's Milk Versus Plant-based Beverages

During the past few years, plant-based milk alternatives have been a growing trend. Deciding which milk to purchase can be overwhelming when you are faced what seems to be endless options to choose from in the milk section.

Traditionally, we had only four choices for milk: whole, 2% , 1% and skim milk. Now you may find several types of plant-based milks in the grocery store, including soy, almond, coconut, cashew, rice, hemp, hazelnut, flax, oat, pea and macadamia. Plant-based milks even are sold in combined forms, with varieties such as almond coconut milk.

Unless you have a dairy allergy, or are lactose intolerant, vegan or vegetarian, don’t “moo-stake” the benefits of cow’s milk! When comparing types of milk, be sure to read the ingredient label.

Plant-based milks may have up to 10 ingredients, whereas cow’s milk has only three: cow’s milk, vitamin A and vitamin D. Plant-based milks often have stabilizers, thickeners, vitamins, minerals, sugar, salt and artificial flavorings added that are not naturally occurring.

Benefits of Cow’s Milk

  • A 1-cup serving of cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein, compared with a majority of plant-based milks, which contain only 0 to 2 grams. Soymilk is the best plant-based option for protein content, with 8 grams of protein in a 1-cup serving.
  • Cow’s milk is naturally rich in nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin and vitamin B12. Calcium is not naturally occurring in plant alternatives, which means our bodies do not absorb the calcium as easily.
  • Cow’s milk is typically cheaper than plant-based alternatives. Cow’s milk costs approximately $0.26 per cup, compared with the average plant-based alternative costing $0.40 per cup.


  • According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, a healthy eating pattern includes fat-free or low-fat (1%) dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages. Soymilk is included as part of the dairy group because it contains a similar nutrient profile, compared with cow’s milk.
  • The Dietary Guidelines recommends 2-cup equivalents of dairy for 2- to 3-year-olds, 2.5-cup equivalents for 4- to 8-year-olds, and 3-cup equivalents for 9- to 18-year-olds and adults.
  • Those who are lactose intolerant can choose low-lactose or lactose-free dairy products, such as Lactaid milk or other brands, which state “lactose-free.”
  • Add milk to your smoothie, oatmeal or cereal.
  • Make ice cream (or ice milk) in a bag for a refreshing treat on a hot, summer day.

Learn more about the science behind the recommendations by visiting the sites listed in the references.



Cow’s milk vs. plant-based alternatives: learn the difference. (2018). United Dairy Industry of Michigan website:

Food Composition Databases Show Foods List. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

Hussels, J. (2018). 7 reasons to choose cow’s milk over plant-based alternatives. New England Dairy & Food Council website:


Key recommendations: components of healthy eating patterns - 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines - (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from


By Rachel Kuhn, Dietetic Intern, NDSU Extension

Filed under: fca newsletter

Sponsored in part by the Sanford Health Foundation.

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