Not all “Milk” is Milk: The Plant-Based Deception

Milk: A white or yellowish emulsion secreted by the mammary glands of female mammals suckling their young and usually consisting of fats, proteins, sugars, vitamins, and minerals suspended in water.
– Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition

While the dictionary definition of “milk” admittedly also references plant-based liquids such as coconut “milk,” today’s societal definition covers just about anything a food processor can squeeze from a plant and wants to label as “milk.” By today’s loose definition, one could probably make the case that olive oil or cactus juice is “milk.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrums, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” That doesn’t sound like almond, soy, or other plant-based impersonators of true “milk.”

Yet, a few decades ago the dairy industry lost control of its own product definition when it agreed to magnanimously allow competing products to use the term “milk” to market and sell their liquid offerings. Much to the chagrin of the dairy industry, those non-dairy “milk” marketing efforts have been successful, adversely impacting dairy milk sales.

Today, a common grocery store decision that shoppers must make is which “milk” to buy. With dozens of options to choose from, it can be overwhelming. What may seem like a simple decision – plant “milk” or dairy milk – turns into a much more complex one when considering factors for each choice. The factors include nutrition, price, availability, environmental impact, and personal preference. Choosing the correct milk for you and your family is important. The best way to decide is to educate yourself on all things milk.

Plant “Milk”

With roughly 20 kinds of plant “milk” to choose from, consumers have no shortage of options. Plant “milk” products fall into five categories: cereal-based, legume-based, nut-based, seed-based, and pseudo-cereal-based. All of these have benefits and challenges including nutrition, price point, and
availability. In addition to these variables, environmental impact is a factor that plays into plant “milk” for some consumers.

Contrary to what many environmental extremists and media outlets lead the public to believe, some plant-based “milks” require a disproportionate amount of resources to produce compared with dairy milk. Not all “milks” are environmentally equal.

Nutrition may be the biggest downside to drinking plant “milk” over dairy milk. Plant “milk” lacks most of the key nutrients that can be found in every glass of dairy milk. For this reason, plant “milk” is often fortified to add some, but not usually all, of the missing dairy milk nutrients.

Plant “milks” lack the protein that dairy milk has. Many plant “milk” options contain only a single gram of protein per 8-ounce serving, compared to the 8-10 grams of protein found in the same serving of dairy milk. Fortification is also used in this instance to enhance the plant “milk.” The only plant-based “milks” containing close to the amount of protein of dairy milk are made from soybeans or peas, both containing 7-8 grams of protein per serving. They are in the minority.

Sugar content is another concern regarding nutrition in plant “milk”. Most options contain added cane sugar or sugar substitutes to make it taste sweeter. Limited options without sweetener enhancements make these plant-based “milks” difficult for those who cannot have additional sugar in their “milk” for health and/or dietary reasons.

Price and Accessibility
The price of plant “milks” could break the bank for some consumers. An article published by the New York Times stated that the two leading plant “milk” types – soy and almond – cost roughly double dairy milk. The same article had oat milk, another popular type, surpassing that level and costing roughly 25 percent more. That’s nearly 2.5 times more than the same amount of dairy milk.

Accessibility is the main concern that stems from the high price point of plant “milks.” Many consumers are unable to justify spending more than $5 for less than a gallon of “milk.” It has been suggested by some plant “milk” enthusiasts to make one’s own plant “milk” at home. However, most working people simply do not have the time and would prefer to pay for the convenience of purchasing milk at the store.

Environmental Impact
A common misconception among plant “milk” drinkers is that they are being “environmentally friendly” by choosing these options over dairy milk. This is false. Environmentally friendly plant-based “milk” is a misconception espoused by environmental extremists to harm the American dairy industry and reduce the amount of dairy operations and dairy milk produced and consumed.

Almond farms require 20 times more water than dairy farms to produce the same amount of milk. This is alarming as California produces most of the nation’s almond supply. California has been suffering from severe drought and routinely faces agriculture water shortages, meaning the amount of water almond farms require strains the state’s water resources. Yet, acreage for almond groves continues to increase in California’s otherwise arid San Joaquin Valley (Central Valley).

It is said that each almond requires one gallon of water to bring the nut to harvest maturity. Think about that – one gallon per almond!

Transportation is another environmental concern regarding plant “milk.” Coconuts have one of the largest transportation impacts, because most are grown outside the U.S. These must be imported via planes and boats that produce significant carbon emissions compared to your local dairy producers.

Dairy Milk

Dairy milk has a wide variety of options. For most consumers the only dairy milk that is accessible is cow milk, giving them four choices to choose from: whole milk (3.25% fat), reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%), and skim milk (0%). Choosing dairy milk also comes with important factors for consumers to consider.

Dairy milk is by far the more nutritious option. One 8-ounce glass of dairy milk contains 13 essential nutrients, including but not limited to 25% of daily recommended calcium, 25% of daily vitamin D, thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), vitamin B12, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.

In addition to essential vitamins and minerals, one glass of dairy milk contains those 8-10 grams of protein referenced earlier, which is roughly 1-2 grams more than the highest protein plant “milk,” and 7-9 grams more than the majority of plant “milks.”

Excluding flavored dairy milks, regular dairy milk does not contain added sugars. Sugars listed on the label are naturally occurring, making dairy milk the ideal choice for those who avoid added sugars. In flavored milk, added sugars do not change the amount of nutrients and protein.

Dairy milk helps maintain a healthy immune system and builds strong bones, especially in children. Finding a plant “milk” option containing the benefits of dairy milk is virtually impossible, leading many consumers to purchase dairy versions.

Environmental Impact
Contrary to popular misconceptions, dairy milk has a relatively low environmental impact. In fact, dairy farmers are some of the best environmental stewards in the agricultural community, leveraging multiple initiatives to reduce their environmental impact, especially greenhouse gasses.

In the past 60 years the dairy industry has reduced its environmental impact by 63%, a stark comparison to other leading polluters whose impacts have increased over that same period. A current initiative in the dairy industry is to become carbon neutral by 2050. This plan is called the Dairy Net Zero Initiative (NZI) and was launched in 2020.

An article on the U.S. Dairy website explained the industry’s goals through NZI, which include achieving greenhouse gas neutrality, optimizing water use while maximizing recycling and improving water quality.

The dairy community is working to achieve these goals because they know how important environmental stewardship is to future generations. Regardless of the misleading rhetoric spewed by those who dislike the dairy industry, the facts tell the story and the environmental story is good for the dairy sector.

Price and Availability
Dairy milk is typically the most cost-friendly milk option on the market, with the New York Times placing its cost at only $2.17 per half gallon. This equates to approximately 25 cents per glass. From a price point perspective, with all the nutrients it has, dairy milk is hard to beat.

Dairy milk’s price fits most American consumers’ grocery budget, making it the most accessible option. In addition to dairy milk’s affordable price point, it can also be found on the shelves of every major grocer in the U.S., in addition to smaller grocery stores, convenience stores, and many other retailers. It’s ubiquitous in the marketplace. Plant “milk” is uncompetitive from a price point perspective, and does not offer the same high level of availability found with dairy milk.

Image and Reputation
It is no secret the media plays a large part in creating public perception of every aspect of our society. The narratives on plant “milk” and dairy milk are no exception. The media uses greenwashing to push its anti-dairy and pro-plant “milk” agenda on the public. A previous Protect The Harvest article stated greenwashing is “the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound.”

A great example of media greenwashing is the 2021 Oatly advertisement that claimed the popular oat “milk” has a lower carbon footprint than traditional dairy milk. In addition, they made the claim that “The dairy and meat industries emit more CO2 than all of the world’s planes, trains, cars, boats, etc., combined.” Oatly used greenwashing to perpetuate this idea to their audience. Scientific studies quickly proved that these claims were false. Unfortunately, the damage was already done, and the news media was complicit in the deception by remaining silent on the topic.

Many plant “milk” brands take an anti-dairy stance to promote their products to consumers, using the media to push an environmental extremist approach that harms the dairy industry. Often, brands conveniently omit facts underscoring dairy is not the problem.

Choosing the Milk for You

Regardless of what the media supports and plant “milk” marketers claim, ultimately the decision regarding which “milk” to purchase it is up to each consumer. Becoming informed about the nutrition, environmental impact, affordability and availability is the best way to determine which “milk” is best for you and your family.

For some, plant “milk” may be the best option. According to the Boston Children’s Hospital, 30-50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, meaning they should not, or cannot, consume dairy products for health reasons. For those consumers, dairy may not be the best option. With that in mind, it is good that most people have access to a wide variety of dairy milk substitutes.

Consumers also must apply ethical thought when researching which “milk,” they choose to drink. Just because the media and special interest groups promote a product, does not mean it is in the best interest of the public. Personal research is key and “milk” is no exception.

Helpful Links

Read more about dairy and plant milk differences HERE.

Read more about dairy and plant milk differences HERE.

Learn more about plant-based milks HERE.

Learn more about media involvement HERE.

Learn more about dairy milk nutrients HERE.

Learn more about dairy sustainability HERE.

Learn more about dairy sustainability HERE.

Read more about lactose intolerance HERE.

Read more about plant milk price HERE.

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