what you need to know before you make the switch

Over the last decade, the number of people who drink cow’s milk has decreased, with people switching from dairy products to plant-based alternatives, such as oat and almond milk. With new types of plant-based milks seeming to emerge every week, this trend is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

There are a number of reasons people are switching from dairy to plant-based alternatives. For one thing, many people cannot consume dairy products. Not only are around 5% of UK adults lactose intolerant, but dairy is also the most common allergen in early childhood.

Another big reason people are switching to plant-based dairy alternatives is because of animal welfare and environmental concerns. Studies show that cow’s milk produces more environmental emissions and requires more land and water use than plant-based dairy alternatives.

But even though they are marketed as dairy alternatives, plant-based products may not be exactly the same as dairy. So if you’re thinking of making the switch, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Pay attention to nutrients.

Cow’s milk is a rich source of many important nutrients, including protein, calcium, iodine, and vitamin B12. But many plant-based dairy alternatives don’t naturally contain as much, if any, of these nutrients and micronutrients as cow’s milk.

On average, most plant-based alternatives contain almost no protein, while a glass of cow’s milk contains about eight grams of protein. Soy milk is the exception, as it contains a similar amount of protein per glass as dairy.

Protein is essential for healthy growth and development. While everyone needs protein, some groups may need more than others. For example, older adults need it to maintain muscle strength as they age, and children need it to grow.

On average, most UK adults get around 15% of their protein intake from dairy. But if plant-based dairy alternatives are used as similar replacements, this figure could be less than 1.8%. So if you switch to plant-based dairy, soy milk may be your best option for protein. If you use other types of plant-based milk alternatives, it will be important to include other high-protein foods in your diet, such as tofu or eggs, to make sure you’re getting enough.

Read More: Vegetarian and Vegan Diet: Five Things Over 65s Need to Consider When Switching to a Plant-Based Diet

Most plant-based dairy alternatives also don’t naturally contain the same vitamins and minerals that dairy does. As such, many need to add them during the manufacturing process, which is called “fortification.” However, it’s worth noting that any plant-based dairy alternative labeled “organic” will not contain fortified vitamins and minerals, as this would be against regulations.

Calcium is a very important micronutrient found in milk. It is necessary for good bone health, particularly in children and adolescents. But my own research has shown that only 57% of milk alternatives, 63% of yogurt alternatives, and 28% of cheese alternatives are fortified with calcium. So to make sure you’re getting enough in your diet, check the label and look for products that have been fortified with calcium. Or focus on eating foods that contain calcium, such as fortified breads and cereals, or canned sardines or salmon.

An open can of canned sardines.
Other food sources, such as canned sardines, can help you get enough calcium in your diet.

Iodine is another important nutrient, especially for pregnant women and young children, as it is important for brain development. It also helps produce thyroid hormones, which are important for both growth and metabolism. Although milk and milk products are the main source of iodine in the diet, only a small handful of plant-based dairy products are fortified with iodine. Again, it is important to read the product label to see if it has been fortified with iodine or not. Otherwise, focus on eating foods that contain iodine, such as fish, shellfish, or seaweed, or if that’s not possible, take a supplement.

Also look for vitamin B12 in any plant-based dairy alternatives you can buy. This vitamin is essential for the brain, nerves, and blood cells. While some plant-based dairy alternatives contain vitamin B12, most do not, so you’ll need to focus on getting vitamin B12 from other food sources. Meat generally contains the highest levels of vitamin B12, but if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to consume yeast extract, fortified breakfast cereals, or supplements to ensure you’re getting enough.

Other considerations

Plant-based dairy alternatives aren’t cheap: They’re almost three times the price of cow’s milk and other dairy products (like yogurt). For a family of two adults and one child, the cost of consuming dairy is around £310.89 a year, while plant-based alternatives can cost around £856.70 a year. Purchasing private label products that are fortified can be a cheaper way to avoid dairy without breaking the budget.

But of course, there are many reasons why a person might need to switch to plant-based dairy alternatives, whether it’s because of allergies or environmental concerns. If you’re concerned that you or your child is getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet after switching to plant-based alternatives, it’s worth consulting with a registered dietitian or doctor. Plant-based milks are generally not recommended for children under two years of age. After that, fortified soymilk is probably the next best thing, as it will contain important vitamins and minerals, as well as high amounts of protein.

If you prefer other plant-based milk alternatives, look for one that is fortified. Avoid rice drinks if you have children under the age of five, as they may contain high levels of arsenic. But thanks to the growing interest in plant-based diets, there are now a plethora of options when it comes to plant-based dairy alternatives—just be sure to read the label before you buy one.

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