Our diets have included milk since the very first days of our lives. Being one of the most popular and versatile dairy products in South Africa, dairy milk is an important source of calcium, protein, and other nutrients. However, with the rise of plant-based diets and people becoming more conscious about the environment and their health, plant-based milk has become a trending alternative as a healthier and more ethical choice.
One of the main reasons people choose plant-based milk alternatives is due to concerns about animal welfare and environmental sustainability. Dairy farming has been linked to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water pollution, and other environmental issues.
Going the vegan route
Nicole Nasson from Cape Town, who found herself wanting to consume milk less than before, also became sympathetic to the ethical issue and became vegan four years ago. She believes plant-based milk can provide all the health benefits she needs, just like animal products can.
“I only consume milk for breakfast meals like porridge or cereal, where dairy could easily be replaced with soy, almond, or oat milk. For other things that contain milk like baked goods, I would just buy or make (mostly buy) a dairy-free version of that, which wasn’t hard to find as plant-based foods and vegan foods are becoming more popular,” she says.
She further mentions the downsides of opting for plant-based milk over dairy milk, as cost and social perceptions have a huge impact on what a person chooses.
“The cost and social perception of using plant-based milk or being vegan is a challenge I’ve encountered because the cost is important to my preferences. People choose to stop consuming animal products for substantial reasons, so it emotionally and mentally outweighs the price of these products, but at what cost?” Nasson adds.
Dairy all the way
For Ntando Mazibuko from Benoni, who consumes milk almost every day, dairy milk is his preference. Mazibuko says even though it caused him stomach cramps at first, it does not anymore.
“I consume two or three servings of dairy milk per day. Dairy milk contains high calories and contains more protein, whereas plant-based milk is low in vitamins and iodine and high in sweeteners. Hence, I have never considered plant-based milk alternatives,” he says.
Best of both
According to Johannesburg-based dietician, Mbali Mapholi, plant-based milk contains a variety of nutrients that can be considered better than dairy milk. She also highlights the key differences in nutritional content between plant-based and dairy milk.
“However, many plant-based milks are fortified with these nutrients to make up for any deficiencies,” she explains.
People with dietary restrictions like lactose intolerance or allergies can also benefit from switching to plant-based milk, as these kinds of milk are free from dairy and lactose.
“There can be significant health benefits to replacing dairy milk with plant-based milk, particularly for individuals who are lactose intolerant or have other dairy allergies or intolerances. Plant-based milk can also be lower in calories and saturated fat, which can help support heart health. Some plant-based milk like soy milk has been shown to have additional health benefits, such as helping to lower cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of certain cancers,” she says.
Choose one that works for you
Studies have shown that plant-based diets can have health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and obesity, but can also harm bone health. Therefore, plant-based milk alternatives may be better for people who want to lower their risk of chronic disease or maintain a healthy weight.
However, it is important to choose a plant-based milk alternative with calcium and vitamin D that does not contain added sugars or artificial flavours.
Best of both worlds
Despite the taste and familiarity of dairy milk, Mapholi highlights that people may go back to consuming dairy milk because they feel they need more protein or other specific nutrients that are traditionally associated with dairy. She however encourages people to choose the type of milk that works best for their needs and preferences.
“For individuals who are lactose intolerant or have other dairy allergies or intolerances, plant-based milk can be a great alternative. For individuals who choose to consume dairy milk, I recommend choosing low-fat or non-fat varieties to support heart health,” concludes Mapholi.
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