Dairy vs. Non-Dairy Milk

Cruelty-free has never tasted better

Hannah Levy, Senior Staff Writer

The cookies are fresh out of the oven, the chocolate chips are oozing and the seemingly unquenchable temptation for a tall glass of refreshing milk emerges. You open the fridge in hopes of satisfying your craving, yet are surprised when all of the milk options are dairy-free. “Should I give it a go?” you ask yourself. The answer is yes. Dairy alternatives are far from new, and the controversy is beckoning consumers’ attention. Dairy-free is all the rave.

Neel Vats / Talon

From baristas and vegans to household shoppers, all those posing the question of “Dairy or Non-Dairy?” deserve recognition. The most popular milk substitutes include oat, soy, rice and almond. These offer all of the benefits that are naturally occurring in cow’s milk, such as calcium, vitamin A, potassium and B vitamins — without the animal involvement (no cows are grazing or being raised for their milk), according to NBC. Zero grams of added sugar and concise ingredient lists spark the satisfaction of shoppers as well. Same perks as cow milk, if not better. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Still, the question remains, “why switch?” Hasn’t cow milk been advertised for years as the magical drink that makes our bones strong and provides ample protein per glass? According to the American Society for Nutrition, the realm of dairy alternatives attracts patrons for a variety of reasons — some by choice and others by necessity. Milk allergies, lactose intolerance and inflammation, for example, are common motivators to make the switch to non-dairy products. Similar to the vegan lifestyle which avoids all animal products, consumers are enticed by the ability to make non-dairy milks at home, satisfy ethical considerations surrounding dairy farms and enjoy the reduction of fat in most non-dairy products. 

From a solely nutritional standpoint, most non-dairy milks have at least 25% less fat than cow milk and, as a result, less calories per cup. The sodium levels are about the same in dairy products as in the alternatives, but non-dairy milks boast a higher water content. Milks such as oat, almond, rice and pea are fortified with calcium and vitamin D to provide consumers with what they search for in their normal dairy milk products. 

Non-dairy milks offer a favorable option for consumers connected to environmental activism or hold these values highly. Environmental researcher Joseph Poore’s study on greenhouse gas emissions at the University of Oxford shows that dairy milk uses 9 times more land per liter of dairy than the non dairy alternatives do. Since the production of non dairy products does not require animals or the involvement of animal farms, the carbon footprint left behind by the production of these items is significantly less than the alternative. Beyond this, the New York Times has revealed in an expose on an upstate New York farm that dairy farming practices are often “inhumane,” involving “beating cows with metal rods” and dismissing medical issues when they arise among livestock. Although independent farms treat their cows with higher standards and provide more frequent veterinarian visits, the vast majority of dairy farmers fail to uphold the same fair treatment. Non-dairy milk is a cruelty-free option for milk lovers.

Unfortunately, the ingredients necessary for producing alternative milks creates a new environmental concern for modern agriculture. While greenhouse gas emissions may be reduced by avoiding cow farms, crops such as almonds require copious amounts of water to grow. What will be better for this new generation of milk producers and consumers: more greenhouse gases or an increased need for freshwater? Only time will tell. 

Numerous brands decorate the shelves of grocery store aisles. From Oatly and Milkadamia to Koita and Almond Breeze, alternative dairy brands are doing all that they can to catch consumers’ eyes. Colorful packaging, creative plays on words, and eco-friendly cartons appeal to these brands’ intended audiences. Plant based milks are not only in competition with regular dairy brands such as Horizon and Alta Dena, but with each other as well. The rise of oat milk, with its rich and creamy texture, has become the favorite of baristas. The Wall Street Journal claims based on “rigorous” testing of milks that “the faux milk of the moment is undoubtedly oat.”Above many other non-dairy milk options, oat milk is known as the sweetest. Further, the beta-glucans (heart-healthy fiber) in the beverage add an extra layer of nutritional benefits such as improving cholesterol levels.

Whether dunked in with a cookie, splashed onto cereal or incorporated into morning lattes, dairy lovers have a wide range of uses and options to choose from when it comes to milk. In fact, milks, cheeses, creamers and frozen treats have never required so much attention and categorization by grocers. While the dairy section of grocery stores once occupied merely a few chilled sections, it has now expanded, demanding ample space. The plant-based alternatives take up almost as much space as the “traditional” dairy products. The spotlight is absolutely undeniable. 

The leap from milks as a dietary alternative to a trend ropes in a whole other discussion. If something on the family shopping list can become a fad, who knows what else will become the next craze? For now, give it a try by welcoming non-dairy milks into both your refrigerator and your heart.