Cow Milk vs. Plant-Based Milk: What’s the Difference?

Alicia Dixon, MS, RD, LDN| View Author Bio

Learn how dairy milk compares to plant-based milks in terms of protein, vitamins, minerals, effects on human health, and cost.


Protein is an important nutrient that plays a key role in cell maintenance and therefore is a major part of overall health maintenance.  Milk contains 8 grams of high-quality protein per cup regardless of fat content. The amount of protein in plant-based milks varies widely depending on the ingredients added in processing. Additionally, it’s important to consider protein quality. Dairy contains what is called complete protein. The majority of plant-based protein sources are incomplete.

Vitamins and Minerals

Dairy milk is packed with 13 essential nutrients, including calcium, protein, vitamin D, phosphorus, and more. These nutrients are important for repairing bone and tissue as well as supporting growth and metabolism. They exist in dairy milk without variability or need for fortification, while plant-based milks tend to vary widely in their nutrient composition.

For a nutrient breakdown of the vitamins and minerals in cow’s milk and some of the most common plant-based milks, check out this handout: Know Your Milk.

Effects on Human Health

Current research shows that intake of milk and dairy products is associated with lower risk of childhood obesity, cardiovascular disease, and improved body composition. Dairy milk can also help to provide a high intake of calcium which is essential in supporting the build-up of bone mass during the different growth stages. This can help to prevent age-related bone loss, osteoporosis, and risk of fractures. Due to the high degree of variability in the nutrient composition of plant-based milks, it is important to educate oneself on the nutritional profiles of these alternatives compared to the nutrients contained in dairy milk.


When comparing the prices of dairy milk to other plant-based milks, dairy milk is typically the most affordable. A half-gallon of dairy milk generally costs $2.89 compared to almond milk at $3.79, oat milk at $ 3.79, pea milk at $4.99, and vanilla soy milk at $4.39.

Learn More About Milk and Plant-Based Alternatives

Learn more about what’s in your glass to make informed decisions about your diet. Including dairy in a plant-based diet can be beneficial in terms of preventing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and improving body weight. Chocolate milk has even been shown to help with recovery, rehydration, and building muscle among athletes. A list and description of the essential nutrients in milk can be found in 13 ways milk can help your body.


Clark N. Sports Nutrition: Current Trends and Fads. Oral presentation at: Massachusetts Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Annual Meeting; March, 2021; Online.

Chalupa-Krebzdak S, Long CJ, Bohrer BM. Nutrient density and nutritional value of milk and plant-based milk alternatives. Int Dairy J. 2018;87:84-92. DOI: 10.1016/j.idairyj.2018.07.018

Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, Anne Raben, Tine Tholstrup, Sabita S. Soedamah-Muthu, Ian Givens & Arne Astrup (2016) Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence, Food & Nutrition Research, 60:1, DOI: 10.3402/fnr.v60.32527

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