Got Milk? Milking the Secrets out of the Many Kinds of Milk
By Emily Sheng
If plain milk comes from white cows, does chocolate milk come from brown cows? Not exactly: both plain and chocolate flavored milk comes from both white and brown dairy cows. Where does oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk come from then? Do they all come from cows as well? Again, not exactly, as these are common plant-based dairy alternatives.
The definition of milk is not clear cut. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of food labeling. They have two general categories for how to regulate food based on whether they classify the product as standardized or nonstandardized.
Standardized food includes milk and yogurt, and they have an official standard of identity, a legal description. The standard of identity for milk is the “lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Basically, it means that milk comes from cows.
Plants-based dairy products are nonstandardized products. The FDA treats nonstandardized products more generally and only requires that manufacturers use the common or usual name. For example, this means that the creamy liquid produced from almonds can go by its common name of almond milk.
The origin of the many types of milk come from the original usage of the word. In the 13th century, the word “milk” was used as a noun for “milk-like plant juices or saps.” This clearly follows the modern, everyday usage of the word. All the kinds of plant-based milk sure look, taste, and feel like cow milk.
A common method plant-based milk is produced is through soaking the nut or other grain in water overnight. Then the mixture is strained with a sieve. The grains are then blended with more water, and the resulting creamy mixture is boiled. The final liquid is then ready to drink! Extra flavors like vanilla extract and cinnamon can be added throughout the process to give it an enhanced taste. A new plant-based milk, pea milk, is made in a completely different method. Peas are first grinded into powder and then a machine separates the protein from the fiber and starch. The protein powder is then blended with water.
Despite looking very similar to milk, plant-based milk have different nutrients compared to cow’s milk. Scientists have tested cow milk and popular alternatives like soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk. They have concluded that soy milk is most comparable to cow’s milk in terms of a broad nutrient profile of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. On the other hand, almond milk has only 1/8 as much protein per serving compared to cow’s milk, but almond milk has extremely high amounts of vitamin E compared to cow’s milk. Generally, many micronutrients like potassium and vitamin K are only found in cow’s milk. To counter this, many manufacturers fortify or add their products with extra vitamins and minerals.
Scientists are also unsure of how the body responds to nutrients in animal-produced milk and plant-produced milk versus the nutrients added in by manufacturers. The protein in cow’s milk is believed to be more easily used by your body and has a more diverse range of proteins.
The many types of milk available at the grocery store today means that there are more options. It provides a means for those who have milk allergies or are lactose intolerant to enjoy a substance similar to cow’s milk. Additionally, these new milks provide many recipes for those who want to experiment in the kitchen!
For those interested in reading a scientific study comparing the nutritional values in the various types of milk available, this is a great article: https://journals.lww.com/jpgn/fulltext/2017/05000/A_Comparison_of_the_Nutritional_Value_of_Cow_s.28.aspx
Editor: Judy Zhang