2022

"Should you switch to plant-based milk?"


Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, assistant professor of community health sciences, addresses milk and milk alternatives.

Three different types of nut-based milk

These days, shopping for a gallon of milk involves making some choices – cow’s milk now shares the shelf with many non-dairy milk alternatives. Plant-based milk is rising in popularity along with people’s growing concerns about their health, the environment and animal welfare.

“There’s really no downside to drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk,” said Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health assistant professor of community health sciences and senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “Although milk is only one small part of a person’s diet, plant-based milk along with a plant-forward diet offers many benefits for your health and the environment.”

While you’ll get the most from a fully plant-forward diet, simply swapping your milk choice can provide benefits to your health and the world around you. If you’re on the fence about trying plant-based milk or need a refresher on the advantages of milk alternatives, here’s what you need to know:

There are many flavors and types of plant-based milk alternatives

With so many kinds of plant-based milks available, chances are you’ll find one that works for you. Alternative milks can be categorized according to their plant base:

  • Fruit, like banana milk
  • Grain, like rice, quinoa and oat milks
  • Legume, such as pea protein and soy milk
  • Nut, which includes walnut, cashew, almond and coconut milks
  • Seed, like hemp, sesame and flaxseed milks
  • Within each type of plant-based milk, you’ll often find options in flavor (chocolate or vanilla) and sweetness (unsweetened or sweetened).

Plant-based milk offers a healthy alternative to dairy milk

Some people turn to non-dairy milk because of an allergy or intolerance. But even if cow’s milk doesn’t cause any issues for you, consider the health benefits of plant-based milk, including:

No hormones
Cows produce milk during pregnancy and lactation when an increase in the hormone estrogen naturally occurs. Cows on factory farms, where 70% of dairy cows are raised, have serial pregnancies that result in extremely high hormone levels, Hunnes explained. That naturally occurring estrogen makes its way into the dairy milk you drink.

“The effect of this added estrogen on human health is still controversial, and there is a lot of conflicting data,” Hunnes said. “But some studies show that it can increase the risk of breast, uterine and prostate cancers.”

Lower in fat and calories
Some nutritional aspects of many plant-based milks are similar to cow’s milk, such as sodium and potassium. According to the American Society of Nutrition, most milk alternatives are a healthier choice when it comes to fat and calories.

Compared to one cup of whole-fat cow’s milk, most plant-based milks have 37% to 75% less fat. Many varieties of non-dairy milk, including almond, rice, coconut, hemp and cashew milk, are lower in calories than dairy milk.

Less sugar
The unsweetened varieties of plant-based milk offer an opportunity to consume less sugar than dairy milk. “Most people don’t realize that cows’ milk has 12 grams of carbohydrates in it from milk sugars (lactose),” Hunnes said. “Many of the unsweetened varieties of plant-based milk have just one gram of carbohydrates. The less sugar we can add to our diet, the better.”

Non-dairy milks are environmentally friendly

There is growing evidence that what you eat affects climate change. But plant-based diets, including milk alternatives, can play a big role in protecting our environment.

According to Hunnes, plant-based milks:

Require less land
Dairy cows need to graze. But the space those cows need and the foods they eat often lead to deforestation, which affects climate change. Compared to the land that cows need for grazing or for food, plants grown to produce milk alternatives require very little land.

“Producing a gallon of plant-based milks, on average, requires 10% of the land that it takes to produce the same gallon of cow’s milk,” Hunnes said. “Plant-based milk offers a huge reduction in land use.”

Require less water
Producing plant-based milk conserves water when compared to the water required to produce cow’s milk on dairy farms. While different plants require different levels of water, the amount of water used to produce plant-based milk averages 50% less (and up to 90% less) water than that of dairy milk.

Produce fewer emissions
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), cattle milk is responsible for 20% of the world’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. The plants needed to produce milk alternatives produce much less carbon dioxide. “The cows needed to produce dairy milk emit up to three times the amount of carbon dioxide as plants,” Hunnes said. Switching to plant-based milk immediately reduces your carbon footprint.

Tips for choosing a plant-based milk

Hunnes offers the following tips for selecting a plant-based milk:

  • Choose the type that tastes the best to you: Try different types, brands and flavors. Find one you like and stick with it, so you’re more likely to drink it.
  • Read the nutrition label carefully: All plant-based milks are not created equal. Make sure the one you drink provides the nutrients you’re looking for, such as calcium or vitamin D. Whenever possible, get your nutrients from food, not supplements.
  • Consider a higher protein option if you are vegan: Many plant-based milks do not offer much protein. If you aren’t getting protein elsewhere, choose a plant-based milk that supplies it. The best plant-based protein options are pea, flaxseed and soy milks.
  • Keep an eye on the cost: Some plant-based milks can cost twice as much as dairy milk. If you drink a lot of milk, look for the best unsweetened option in your price range that has the nutrients you require.

Faculty Referenced by this Article

Dana Hunnes
Dana Hunnes
Community Health Sciences
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James Macinko
James Macinko

Professor of Community Health Sciences & Health Policy and Management, and Associate Dean for Research

Community Health Sciences Health Policy and Management
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glik, deborah
Deborah Glik
Community Health Sciences
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David Eisenman
David Eisenman
Community Health Sciences
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Bo-Kyung Elizabeth Kim headshot.png
Bo-Kyung Elizabeth Kim
Community Health Sciences
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Sean Darling-Hammond
Sean Darling-Hammond
Biostatistics Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Michael Rodriguez
Michael Rodriguez
Community Health Sciences
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Cathy Lang
Cathy Lang

Assistant Dean for Research & Adjunct Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences

Community Health Sciences
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Ondine S. von Ehrenstein
Community Health Sciences Epidemiology
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Ilan H. Meyer
Ilan H. Meyer
Community Health Sciences
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May Wang headshot
May C. Wang
Community Health Sciences
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Dena Herman
Dena Herman
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Elizabeth D'Amico
Elizabeth D’Amico
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Shira Shafir
Shira Shafir
Community Health Sciences Epidemiology
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Dr. Michael Goldstein
Michael Goldstein
Community Health Sciences
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Wendelin Slusser
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Dana Rose Garfin
Dana Rose Garfin
Community Health Sciences
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Marjorie Kagawa-Singer
Marjorie Kagawa-Singer
Community Health Sciences
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Courtney Thomas Tobin headshot.png
Courtney S. Thomas Tobin
Community Health Sciences
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Sheba George
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Judith M. Siegel
Judith M. Siegel
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Samuel Stratton
Samuel Stratton
Community Health Sciences
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Virginia C. Li
Virginia C. Li
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Michael Prelip
Michael Prelip
Community Health Sciences
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Natalie Muth
Community Health Sciences
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Dawn Upchurch
Community Health Sciences
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Charlotte Neumann
Charlotte G. Neumann
Community Health Sciences
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Jennifer A. Wagman
Jennifer A. Wagman
Community Health Sciences
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Kimberley Shoaf
Community Health Sciences
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Robert Kim-Farley
Robert J. Kim-Farley

Robert J. Kim-Farley, MD, MPH, is a Professor-in-Residence with joint appointments in the Departments of Epidemiology and Community Health Sciences

Community Health Sciences Epidemiology
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Dr. Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez
Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Randall Kuhn
Randall Kuhn
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Chandra Ford
Chandra Ford
Community Health Sciences
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Philip Massey headshot
Philip Massey
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Jessica Gipson
Jessica Gipson
Community Health Sciences
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halbert, ronald
Ronald Halbert
Community Health Sciences
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Kimberly Gregory
Kimberly Gregory
Community Health Sciences
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Sarah Blenner
Sarah Blenner

Director of Field Studies and Applied Professional Training

Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Gilbert Gee
Gilbert C. Gee
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. May Sudhinaraset
May Sudhinaraset
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Alina Dorian
Alina Dorian
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Anne Pebley
Anne Pebley
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Donald Morisky
Donald E. Morisky
Community Health Sciences
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Paula Tavrow
Paula Tavrow
Community Health Sciences
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Dr. Elizabeth Yzquierdo
Elizabeth Yzquierdo
Community Health Sciences
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