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Some people just can't drink cow's milk. Just a few sips of milk, a few nibbles of cheese, or a spoon of yogurt or ice cream may be enough to cause bloating, cramping, and gas.

Some people just can't drink cow's milk.

The culprit in cow's milk is the sugar lactose, which some people cannot digest because they do not have the genes to make the digestive enzyme lactase.

Sheep's milk, goat's milk, mare's milk, and camel's milk are often offered as alternative dairy sources, but they contain lactose, too. The natural solution for lactose intolerance is not to keep searching for increasingly exotic cow's milk substitutes, but to use a plant-derived milk substitute such as soy milk.

What is soy milk?

Farmers don't go out in soybean fields with a stool and milk pail. Soy milk is actually a beverage made from soybeans. It is the milk-like liquid that remains after the beans are soaked, ground fine, and strained.

The big advantage of soy milk for the lactose intolerant is the fact that soy milk does not contain any lactose. And if you follow a vegan lifestyle, it's a permissible food that is not derived from animals. But is soy's milk as nutritious as cow's milk.

Soy milk vs. cow’s milk – the dairy debate

Soy milk, like cow's milk, is a good source of protein. It contains nearly 7 grams of protein per cup (240 ml). Unlike cow's milk, however, soy milk is low in fat and carbohydrate. That cup of soy milk offers only 4500 mg of fat with no cholesterol, and just 4 grams of carb. The carbohydrate in soy milk is sucrose, the same carbohydrate found in sugar cane. Since it breaks down into fructose and glucose instead of lactose and galactose, soy milk is a safe food for people who either lactose- or galactose-intolerant.

Soy milk is not a very good source of calcium in its natural state, but many manufacturers add calcium and B-vitamin fortification to their commercial products. Some brands add vitamin D and vitamin E as well. If you drink 3 or 4 cups of soy milk every day, and you eat at least 1 or 2 servings of some whole grain, your body will get all the essential amino acids it needs for maintenance and repair.

Cow's milk is a slightly better source of protein than soy milk. A cup of cow's milk contains 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrate, along with 30% of an adult's daily calcium needs plus about 50% of the body's daily need for riboflavin (vitamin B2) and Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12). Dairies often fortify cow's milk with vitamin A and vitamin D. It's not really a complete food, since it is deficient in fiber and plant chemicals, but it is an excellent source of major nutrients. Cheese concentrates both calcium and fat, while ice cream and yogurt are less "acidifying" in the body because of their amino acid profile. If your body cannot process lactose, however, as 90% of the population of the world cannot, you are going to have problems when you consume cow's milk or any product made from it.

What makes raw cow’s milk better?

Pasteurization, the process where the milk is heated, kills the beneficial bacteria, healthy enzymes, and proteins. After pasteurization, you get to drink dead liquid which is of no benefit and might actually cause more harm than do any good to those who drink it. Drinking raw milk has many health benefits. If you obtain your raw milk from a healthy grass-fed cow it is very safe to drink.

The benefits are numerous and plenty. It is very rich in enzymes and actually contains all of the 22 essential amino acids. This includes phosphate, which is important for the absorption of calcium. Raw milk is also the best source of calcium available. It is also a great source of vitamins, in particular vitamin B12, which is an important vitamin that is hard to find in non-meat sources. It also contains the enzyme IgG and vitamins A, B, and C.

Research shows that it also contains enzymes and antibodies that actually render milk less susceptible to bacteria. Lipase is also present which aids in the digestion of fats. Another great benefit is that it also contains CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which has been noted to fight cancer.

Benefits of soy milk over cow’s milk

The health benefits of soy milk are irrefutable. Yet, many people are concerned about how soy milk measures up to cow’s milk. Soy milk is high in protein, and because it is made from beans, also contains considerably more fiber than cow's milk. The biggest benefit in soy milk is the isoflavones. These are chemicals very similar to the hormone estrogen. Isoflavones are connected to a whole host of health issues, and responsible for the prevention of many cancers, heart disease, osteoporosis and more.

Soy milk isn't fat-free. It does have a bit more fat than 2% cow's milk, but none of the nasty cholesterol. Because soy milk is made from beans, it contains about 9 times less saturated fat than cow’s milk. Furthermore, soy milk has 10 times as many fatty acids, which is a healthier fat as compared to cow’s milk.

Soy milk is cholesterol free. On the other hand, each cup of cow’s milk has 34 mg of cholesterol. In addition, soy milk lowers LDL or bad cholesterol while cow’s milk raises LDL cholesterol. Soy milk also provides additional heart protection with phytochemicals, which are found in abundance in soy milk. Cow’s milk does not contain these helpful chemicals.

Soy milk contains more than four times the amount of thiamin (vitamin B1) and nearly twice the amount of niacin (vitamin B3) as compared to cow's milk. It also contains more magnesium, copper, and manganese than cow's milk. Soy milk also contains 42 times the amount of manganese as does cow's milk. Manganese is needed for bone formation. People with anemia rely upon manganese for iron storage.

Research has demonstrated that men who drink two servings of soy milk every day are 70% less likely to develop prostate cancer. There are no similar findings regarding men who drink cow’s milk.

Shortcomings of soy milk

The largest downfall of soy milk is the lack of calcium. It has only about a quarter of the calcium, compared to cow's milk. Many soy milk manufacturers are adding calcium to their products, but studies show that it is not as healthful as naturally-occuring calcium.

As for the nine essential amino acids in protein necessary for sustaining life, cow's milk and soy milk contain nearly identical amounts. Cow's milk has a mere one-fifth of a gram more essential amino acids than the soy. This may be a hollow victory for milk lovers because one of the nine essential amino acids is methionine. Cow's milk contains more than twice as much methionine as does soy milk. The center atom of methionine is sulfur.
Too much animal protein creates an acid condition in the blood which the body must neutralize by taking calcium from the bones. So, nations consuming the most animal protein have the highest rates of osteoporosis.  Soy milk contains greater amounts of other amino acids including arginine, alanine, aspartic acid, and glycine.

One serving of soy milk contains about half the phosphorus as a serving of cow milk. The dairy industry considers this as a benefit of drinking cow’s milk, but it doesn’t seem true. In fact, most of us get too much phosphorus in our diets as it is. Therefore, the reduced phosphorus of soy milk is actually beneficial for many people.

Soy milk contains about 60% less riboflavin than cow’s milk. Riboflavin is an important vitamin, but it is also found in great abundance in seeds, nutritional yeast, green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Therefore, cow’s milk is not a necessary source for riboflavin for a person who eats a well-balanced diet.

Women who have had breast cancer may want to limit their intake of soy protein, as some studies have pointed to possible harm from consuming excess soy. Another study published in the journal Human Reproduction found 41 million fewer sperm per milliliter of semen after just one portion of food containing soy every
two days.

Not cow nor soy milk for the babies

A baby under one-year-old should be drinking neither soy milk nor cow's milk, but rather should be drinking breast milk or a formula that can be either soy based or dairy based. Once a baby turns one-year-old and has progressed to table foods, the choice between soy milk and dairy milk is an individual matter. If a child is allergic to milk, is lactose intolerant or for some reason cannot tolerate or dislikes milk, or is being raised in a vegan vegetarian family, soy milk is a better choice.

For most toddlers, cow's milk is generally a better choice because it is more nutrient dense and naturally contains more vitamins, protein and minerals than soy milk. So, the choice of milk for children is dependent on the nutritional needs and restrictions, as well as the taste preferences of the child. Children have been raised successfully on both types of milk.

The bottom line

The debate of soy milk vs. cow milk is likely to continue for years. The bottom line is, both milks provide vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, but only soy milk has been found to actually improve the health of its drinkers.