Does Cow's Milk Still Lead the Way for Milk-Based Products for Runners?

August 25, 2023

In the past few years, we have seen a huge rise in plant based milks with Oatly, and even Flavahans launching great tasting dairy alternatives. I won't lie, its hard to beat an oat milk hot chocolate! 

While these alternatives have gained significant popularity due to people looking for a dairy free, or vegan lifestyle, there remains a common question in both society, and within sports: Do the plant based milks match the nutritional content found in traditional cow’s milk? 

Rather than giving my opinion on this directly, I recently read an academic article by the American Society for Nutrition. This study provides some interesting insights into the question, shedding light on what may be the best choice for runners and athletes who rely heavily on nutrition to fuel their performance, and recovery.

Please note: I am a runner, and while I read academic articles, I am not a nutritionist. There will be some great nutritionists joining Run Republic in the near future. This content is opinion based, and I encourage you to do contact a nutritionist before making significant dietary changes.

An Overview of the Study's Findings

  • A comprehensive analysis of over 200 plant-based milk products showed that only 12% had comparable or higher amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and protein to cow’s milk.
  • While a majority of plant-based alternatives were fortified with calcium and vitamin D, a mere 16% had protein levels equivalent or surpassing that of cow’s milk.
  • Abigail Johnson from the University of Minnesota highlighted that most plant-based milk alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk, emphasizing the need for consumers to make informed choices.

Diving into the Details 

The extensive study, larger in scope than many before it, considered nutrition labels and ingredient information for 233 plant-based milk alternative products from 23 manufacturers. Key findings include:

  • A significant number of products (two-thirds) were derived from almonds, oats, or soy.
  • 170 of these alternatives were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D, with the fortification levels often mirroring that of dairy milk.
  • Protein content showed a broad variability. The median protein content stood at 2.0 grams per 240 milliliters (ml), ranging anywhere from 0 to 12 g. In contrast, cow’s milk consistently provides 8g of protein per 240 ml. Notably, soy and pea-based alternatives were more protein-rich than other varieties.

Implications and Considerations for Consumers 

The study showcases the necessity of transparent labeling and public guidance on the nutritional differences between cow’s milk and its plant-based counterparts. Johnson stressed the importance of consumer awareness, stating that many alternatives available today do not measure up nutritionally to cow’s milk. This isn't to undermine the value of plant-based options but to highlight the need for informed decisions, especially for runners and other athletes who have specific dietary needs.

Looking Forward 

While cow’s milk has established itself over millennia as a primary source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein, researchers are keen on investigating other nutrients in plant-based milk alternatives. A noteworthy mention is the fiber content in many plant-based milks, suggesting that they might fulfil certain nutritional requirements that cow’s milk does not address.

For runners and fitness enthusiasts, nutrition is paramount, as is recovery. While plant-based milk alternatives offer certain benefits, and can be an excellent choice for many, they often do not match cow’s milk in terms of calcium, vitamin D, and protein content. It's crucial for consumers to not only understand these differences but also to diversify their dietary sources to ensure they're obtaining all the necessary nutrients. As the popularity of plant-based milks continues to rise, further research and public education will play a pivotal role in shaping informed dietary decisions.

Related News