Dairy milk products are dominant in the market; however, plant-based milks are gaining prominence among USA consumers. Many questions remain about how plant-based milk products compare to dairy milk from a nutrition, public health, and planetary health perspective. Here, we compare the retail sales, nutrient profiles, and known health and environmental impacts of the production and consumption of dairy and plant-based milks and identify knowledge gaps for future studies. For the plant-based milk comparisons, we reviewed almond, soy, oat, coconut, rice, pea, cashew, and other plant-based milks as data were available.
The retail unit price of plant-based milks was generally higher than that of cow’s milk, making it less accessible to lower-income groups. Many plant-based milks are fortified to match the micronutrient profile of dairy milk more closely. Notable differences remained, especially in protein, zinc, and potassium, depending on the base ingredient and individual product. Some plant-based milks contain added sugar to improve flavor. Plant-based milks were generally associated with lower environmental impacts (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions, water use) than cow’s milk, with the notable exception of the higher water footprint of almond milk.
This review of recent studies and consumer purchases confirmed that retail sales of plant-based milks are increasing and shifting among products. Further research is needed to better characterize the environmental impacts of newer plant-based milks, such as cashew, hemp, and pea milks; consumer attitudes and behavior towards plant-based milks; and the safety and potential health effects related to their long-term and more frequent consumption.
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