SF Food Choices Panel: Nutrition

Milk, the kind from cows, is a staple of the American diet. But now consumers have their choice between dairy milk, almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, rice milk, hemp milk, and coconut milk—the list goes on. Americans are drinking less dairy milk now that store shelves are carrying more options. But is plant-based milk the better option? Let’s see what industry leaders from our Nutritional and Environmental Impact of our Food Choices panel discussion had to say.

When choosing between milk and its alternatives, it is important to look at the nutritional components, Rachel Scherr, PhD, Assistant Research Scientist at UC Davis and Director of the Center for Nutrition in Schools, informed us. Sure, plant-based milks have protein and calcium, but are they bioavailable, meaning can your body readily use them? One glass of 2% dairy milk has 8 grams of protein in it and has all the amino acids you need. It is a complete protein. No alternative comes close to dairy milk in terms of protein. 

Marcus Benedetti, CEO of Clover Sonoma, seconded Rachel’s claim. He said “On the dairy side, we have a compelling case to be made, starting with just the raw nutritional component of what exists in an 8 ounce glass of milk, it’s the original superfood. It cannot be replicated by anything on earth without adding a ton of stuff, taking a bunch of stuff out, processing a bunch of stuff into it or all three of these activities at once.”


Marcus added, “If you think about what has withstood the test of time throughout human history when we first started domesticating animals, we’ve raised countless generations on the original super food and that is milk.”


Now, not all milk is created equal. What one believes to be the original superfood might not be considered the original superfood to you. And with thousands of claimed professionals (and non-professionals) telling consumers what to eat and drink to be “healthy,” how do we as consumers know what’s true and not? No wonder consumers are confused. 


Whether it’s health reasons, a lack of information, too much information or pure curiosity that drives consumer choices, one thing is clear: consumer preferences have changed. Some people do not have the flexibility of choosing between alternative food and beverage products, they must choose one over the other due to health reasons. But as Plant Based Foods Association Senior Director Julie Emmett explained, there’s also a wide variety of shoppers that identify as flexitarian – they want to increase their consumption of plant-based foods, but also sustain their consumption of meat and dairy. 


Stephen Williamson, Founder and CEO of Forager Project, an organic plant-based company, shared that he drinks both dairy milk and plant-based milk. He recognizes that cashew milk does not have the same nutritional profile as regular milk (cashew milk has 3 grams of protein vs. 8 grams); and he is “perfectly okay” with that.  At Forager Project, they do not believe in dumping packets of calcium in their product. “It is what it is. It’s organic. It’s not irrigated. It’s cashew milk,” said Stephen. For calcium, he turns to dairy milk.


All milks–dairy and plant-based, offer different nutritional benefits, because they are made from completely different ingredients. Yes, consumers ultimately choose the type of milk they place in their shopping carts. However,  it is our responsibility as industry leaders to be transparent, so that consumers can make the best food choices to suit their beliefs and lifestyle. 


As Rachel Scherr summed up nicely…at the end of the day, industry leaders should advocate that everyone eat the foods that they want to consume, that are good for the planet, and that are good for their health.