Confused about milk options? You are certainly not alone. With plant-based diets growing in popularity, the demand and interest for almond milk have risen dramatically, while the demand for cow’s milk has decreased in the past several years. But is almond milk actually a good choice? And which one is healthier? Here is the nutritional breakdown of almond milk vs. cow milk.
What’s the difference between almond milk and cow milk?
Although they share a similar name, almond milk and cow milk are quite different in nature. Cow’s milk is a nutrient-rich liquid produced by the mammary glands of dairy cattle, while almond milk is an imitation milk made by blending water with almonds and straining the mixture to remove the solids and create a liquid. Cow’s milk is available in different formats including whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, skim milk, and lactose-free milk, while almond milk is available in unsweetened, sweetened, and flavored varieties. Historically speaking, cow’s milk and dairy products have been consumed across various cultures, while almond milk and other plant-based milks have been more recently introduced in Western culture as alternatives for individuals who can not consume cow’s milk for health reasons and/or choose not to consume it for personal reasons.
Almond Milk vs. Cow Milk Nutrition
Nutritionally speaking, almond milk is low in calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat, while cow’s milk is a moderate source of calories, and a good source of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Here is a comparison of 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk vs. cow milk. (1)(2)
|NUTRITION PER 1 cup||ALMOND MILK||2% COW MILK|
|Calories||40 calories||122 calories|
|Protein||1.0 grams||8.1 grams|
|Fat||3.0 grams||4.8 grams|
|Carbohydrate||2.0 grams||12.3 grams|
|Fiber||1.0 grams||0.0 grams|
|Sugar||0.4 grams||12.3 grams|
- CALORIES: A 1-cup serving of unsweetened almond milk contains 40 calories, while a 1-cup serving of 2% cow milk contains 122 calories, making almond milk the lower-calorie option. The difference in calories between almond milk and cow’s milk is due to the limited amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat in almond milk as it is primarily made of water. However, cow’s milk is also available in 1% milk and 0% milk, which contain 102 and 83 calories respectively, making them lower-calorie options compared to 2% cow’s milk.
- PROTEIN: Cow’s milk is a natural source of high-quality protein, while almond milk contains a very small amount of protein. A 1-cup serving of 2% cow milk contains 8.1 grams of protein, while a 1-cup serving of unsweetened almond milk 1.0 grams of protein. Cow’s milk also contains all 9 essential amino acids, and approximately 80% of the protein is casein protein, while the other 20% of whey protein. (3) Both casein and whey protein have been shown to contain bioactive peptides and provide numerous health benefits including benefits to the immune system, increased absorption of minerals, lowering blood pressure, and growing and maintaining muscle tissues. (4)(5)(6)
- FAT: Although almonds themselves are a good source of healthy fat, very little of their fat content makes it into the beverage format. A 1-cup serving of unsweetened almond milk contains 3.0 grams of fat, while a 1-cup serving of 2% cow milk contains 4.8 grams of fat. Although some of the fat content in almond milk comes from almonds, almond milk often contains added vegetable oils, which contribute to its fat content, but the amount will vary by brand. Cow’s milk is available in varying fat levels, including 3.25%, 2%, 1%, and 0%, and, therefore, the exact fat content will vary based on format. Cow’s milk fat contains approximately 65% saturated fat, 30% monounsaturated fat, and 5% polyunsaturated fatty acids. (7)
- CARBOHYDRATES: Cow’s milk is a natural source of carbohydrates, specifically simple carbohydrates in the form of sugar, predominately lactose with trace amounts of monosaccharides and oligosaccharides. (8) A 1-cup serving of 2% cow milk contains 12.3 grams of carbohydrates, while a 1-cup serving of unsweetened almond milk 2.0 grams of carbohydrates.
- FIBRE: Neither almond milk nor cow milk is a substantial source of fiber. A 1-cup serving of 2% cow milk contains 0.0 grams of fiber, while a 1-cup serving of unsweetened almond milk 1.0 grams of fiber, however, the fiber levels of almond milk can differ by brand.
- SUGAR: Cow’s milk is a source of natural sugars, primarily in the form of lactose. A 1-cup serving of 2% cow milk contains 12.3 grams of sugar, while a 1-cup serving of unsweetened almond milk 0.4 grams of sugar. While unsweetened almond milk contains very low levels of natural sugar, sweetened and flavored versions of almond milk contain often contain higher levels of added sugar.
- VITAMINS & MINERALS: Cow’s milk is a rich source of numerous vitamins and minerals. A 1-cup serving of 2% milk contains a substantial amount of vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and selenium. (2) The loss of fat in 1% and 0% milk does reduce the content of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are therefore often fortified. (9) Conversely, almond milk is primarily made of water and, therefore, contains very limited vitamins and minerals. Most almond milk brands are enriched with vitamin A, vitamin D, and calcium.
Other Factors to Consider
Cow’s milk is a whole food that only contains milk. Although some varieties of milk contain added vitamins and minerals, cow’s milk does not contain additional ingredients in the form of additives or preservatives. On the contrary, almond milk is a form of minimally processed food given almonds do not grow in liquid format, require production, and almond milk contains additives in the form of preservatives, emulsifiers, and stabilizers. Although homemade almond milk is made by soaking and blending almonds with water and then straining the mixture to remove the solids until only the liquid remains, store-bought almond milk often contains additives such as gellan gum, sunflower lecithin, locust bean gum, ascorbic acid, and/or natural flavor. (10)(11)(12)
Cow’s milk is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Not only does it contain a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, but also a good source of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. Conversely, given almond milk’s primary ingredient is water, it contains a very limited amount of all macronutrients, and most of the micronutrients in almond milk are fortified.
Allergies and Intolerances
Cow’s milk is one of the leading causes of allergic food reactions in children; with 2-3% of U.S. children under the age of 5 are allergic to dairy milk. (13) For this reason, non-dairy beverages such as almond milk have become substitutes to conventional dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. While some individuals have a milk allergy; a reaction of the body’s immune system to the proteins found in dairy which triggers a variety of symptoms, other individuals suffer from lactose intolerance; a bodily reaction to the natural sugar (lactose) found in milk due to a lack of the enzyme lactase required to breakdown lactose, however, this does not involve the immune system. (14) For those suffering from lactose intolerance, lactose-free cow’s milk and dairy products are widely available. For those with almond or tree nut allergies, cow’s milk may be the better option.
Calories and Weight Loss
Given almond milk is primarily made of water, it contains fewer calories than cow’s milk, which is a rich source of naturally occurring sugars, healthy fats, and protein. For those concerned about weight loss or reducing calories, almond milk may be a lower-calorie substitute for cow’s milk. Alternatively, 0% or 1% cow’s milk and dairy products can also help to support calorie reduction. With that being said, whole milk and 2% milk can support a goal of weight loss, assuming that total calorie intake is controlled for and their consumption supports a calorie deficit (15). For those looking to gain weight, cow’s milk, especially the higher-fat versions, may be a more efficient way to boost calorie intake.
Overall, almond milk and cow milk both have pros and cons depending on the individual, their diet, health goals, nutritional needs, and personal preferences.
So, almond milk vs. cow milk: which one is healthier?
Cow’s milk is one of the original superfoods and is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. With a natural balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fats, as well as over 15 essential nutrients, cow milk is an incredibly healthy choice. For those who cannot consume or choose not to consume cow’s milk, almond milk is a good plant-based alternative. Compared to cow’s milk, almond milk is lower in protein, fat and carbohydrates, and micronutrients, largely due to the fact that water is the primary ingredient.
The Bottom Line
Although often compared, cow’s milk and almond milk are very different foods. Cow’s milk is a natural source of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals, while almond milk is a water-based and fortified alternative for those who cannot consume dairy products. For those opting for almond milk, it is best to read the ingredients and opt for varieties with minimal added sugar and natural ingredients.