Differences Between Plant-Based Milk and Cow's Milk

Do you know the differences between plant-based milk and cow's milk? We'll teach you and clear up all your doubts. Keep reading.
Differences Between Plant-Based Milk and Cow's Milk
Diego Pereira

Reviewed and approved by el médico Diego Pereira.

Last update: 28 February, 2023

Until not long ago, the only alternative when buying milk in the supermarket was cow’s milk. Today, the options are much more varied, so much so that the average consumer can find it difficult to choose which one to include in their diet. We’ll focus on teaching you the differences between plant-based milk and cow’s milk.

As with cow’s milk, plant-based milk labels also offer a variety of options. Oat, almond, soy, rice, and coconut milk are just a few of the most popular. In the following article, we’ll focus on the nutritional differences between plant milk and cow’s milk, so that you have a basis for choosing the best one for you.

The characteristics of cow’s milk

Cow’s milk is that which is extracted from cattle. Under normal conditions, and according to Harvard TH Chan, it’s made up of 87% water, while the remaining 13% is a combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

During its processing, techniques are applied that allow the composition of the milk to be altered or that add other components, which results in different options when buying.

Whole cow’s milk contains approximately 3.25% fat per cup. Similarly, it contains a total of 150 calories. The variants that we can get in the supermarket modify the percentage of fat that the milk contains for each cup.

For example, reduced-fat milk contains 2% fat and 120 calories, low-fat milk contains 1% fat and 110 calories, and skim milk contains 0% fat and 80 calories for each cup.

We also find other types of cow’s milk. Lactose-free milk is milk that contains lactase, a protein that breaks down the sugar in milk. Flavored milk is one that includes artificial flavorings to alter its color and flavor (chocolate, strawberry, and others).

In the case of organic cow’s milk, it comes from cows that haven’t been treated with antibiotics, haven’t received hormones, and have been fed mostly with grass. Finally, raw cow’s milk is one that hasn’t been pasteurized.

According to researchers, consuming a cup of cow’s milk a day is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, colorectal cancer, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and osteoporosis.

It could also be beneficial in avoiding type 2 diabetes mellitus and Alzheimer’s disease. However, many people develop episodes of allergies, acne, lactose intolerance, and other problems due to its consumption.

The characteristics of plant-based milk

A man reading the label on a bottle of plant-based milk.
There’s a wide variety of milk available in the market according to each taste and need.

Plant milk, also known as plant-based milk or vegan milk, is a beverage made from dissolved plant material that disintegrates in water. It’s not a dairy product, and the use of “milk” in its name may be misleading to the uninformed public.

These beverages have established themselves as an alternative to cow’s milk, especially for those who are allergic or intolerant to it. We’ll highlight the main types:

  • Almond Milk: It’s made with ground almonds and filtered water. It’s the lowest-calorie non-dairy milk (as long as it’s not artificially sweetened), as a cup of it contains approximately 40 calories.
  • Soy milk: This plant-based milk is made with soybeans and filtered water. It’s one of the most caloric varieties, as each cup has between 90 and 100 calories.
  • Rice milk: This type is composed of ground rice and water. Of all the plant-based alternatives to milk, it’s the least likely to cause allergies. It provides an average of 120 calories per cup.
  • Coconut milk: This is made from filtered water and grated ripe coconut pulp. It contains 50 calories per cup, although the percentage of fat is higher than in other alternatives.

There’s also oat, hemp, pea, and nut milk (among others). In all cases, additives are added to achieve a texture that’s similar to that of milk of animal origin.

In the same way, nutrients can also be incorporated to satisfy their deficiencies. For example, calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D. Preservatives are also added to prolong their shelf-life.

What are the differences between plant-based milk and cow’s milk?

In very simple terms, the differences between plant-based milk and cow’s milk lie in their origin. The former are made on the basis of plants or fruits, while the latter is made from cattle.

The use of the nickname “milk” can convey the idea that they’re homonymous products. That is, that they have the same properties, only that one is healthier, natural, or ecological than another.

Is cow’s milk better than vegetable milk?

A person's pouring fresh goat's milk into a glass.
There are several factors that must be taken into account when choosing a milk for its quality: Nutrients, calories, and origin are some of them.

Regardless of the differences, people often wonder which of the two types of milk is better. Specialists warn that consumers associate plant alternatives with a direct substitute for cow’s milk, which may not be true in all cases.

Although the evidence indicates that some plant-based drinks have reached certain amounts of nutrients in cow’s milk, there are notable differences between them and even between the manufacturers themselves.

It’s also important to consider that many people choose to prepare non-dairy milk at home, which substantially reduces the nutritional aspect that’s acquired with commercial brand additives.

Experts point out that most of these dairy alternatives lack nutritional balance compared to bovine milk; this, without detracting from its active functional components with properties that promote health.

Regarding their use, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alternatives to bovine milk shouldn’t be administered before 12 months. When this time comes, the only endorsed option is fortified soy beverages. It’s best to consult with a pediatrician before considering including this and other alternatives to cow’s milk.

In general, animal-based milk provides greater nutritional benefits than plant-based milk. However, the latter is an alternative for those who can’t drink the former. The price of plant-based drinks is usually higher, which conditions access for many people.

  • Fructuoso I, Romão B, Han H, et al. An Overview on Nutritional Aspects of Plant-Based Beverages Used as Substitutes for Cow’s Milk. 2021;13(8):2650. Published 2021 Jul 30.
  • Sethi S, Tyagi SK, Anurag RK. Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2016;53(9):3408-3423.
  • Vanga SK, Raghavan V. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk?. J Food Sci Technol. 2018;55(1):10-20.
  • Zhang X, Chen X, Xu Y, et al. Milk consumption and multiple health outcomes: umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses in humans. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2021;18(1):7. Published 2021 Jan 7.

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