Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives: What You Need to Know
While milk and milk products were once the sole occupant of the typical supermarket dairy case, cow’s milk is now sharing space with an increasing array of non-dairy beverage alternatives. These plant-based beverages are made from soybeans, nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts), coconut, grains (rice, quinoa), and seed (flax, hemp). In addition to grocery stores, some of these non-dairy milk alternatives are appearing in coffee shops, restaurants and other retail outlets.
My growing curiosity about consumers’ interest in these so-called “milks” prompted me to question some shoppers at my local grocery store who were purchasing non-dairy milk alternatives. One shopper told me she liked the taste of almond “milk,” and believed it was cow’s milk with almond flavoring. She was surprised to learn that it was a non-dairy milk alternative!
Another shopper said the nutritional content of her coconut “milk” was just the same as real dairy milk. As a registered dietitian, I can tell you the truth is that her coconut “milk” was higher in fat and naturally lower in calcium and protein than cow’s milk. Other shoppers commented that they chose plant-based beverages because they are vegan, lactose intolerant, or allergic to cow’s milk.
Several shoppers expressed confusion about all the choices. Considering how the dairy case has grown and changed over the years, it’s understandable. The following considerations can help you cut through the confusion and make informed choices the next time you’re in the dairy aisle.
Milk alternatives are not cow’s milk. Non-dairy beverage alternatives are made from ground soybeans, nuts, grains, and seeds mixed with water and flavorings. These plant-based beverages do not contain any dairy products. While cow’s milk is simply milk with added vitamin D and vitamin A (for low-fat and non-fat milks), the ingredient list on non-dairy milk alternatives is often long, including not only added vitamins and minerals, but also sugars, thickening agents and stabilizers.
Nutrient content. Cow’s milk is naturally one of the best sources of calcium in Americans’ diets and provides high-quality protein, along with seven other essential nutrients. It also is a source of three (calcium, vitamin D, and potassium) of the four nutrients of concern identified by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In contrast, non-dairy alternatives vary widely in nutrient content and are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk. Use of the term “milk” can lead to confusion and the misperception that these products are nutritionally equal to cow’s milk. Read the Nutrition Facts label to see how these plant-based beverages differ from each other and from real dairy milk, including:
- Calcium. Many plant-based beverages are low in calcium and, as such, are fortified to try to match the calcium content of cow’s milk. However, the added calcium in non-dairy milk alternatives may not be absorbed by the body as well as the naturally occurring calcium in cow’s milk.
- Protein. Unless protein has been added, most non-dairy alternatives are lower in protein than cow’s milk. A one cup (8 ounce) serving of cow’s milk contains 8 g of high-quality protein, whereas non-dairy alternatives such as almond, coconut, rice and cashew “milk” contain 1 g or less of protein per serving. Also, cow’s milk protein is a complete protein, compared to most plant-based beverages, whose protein is incomplete, missing some of the essential amino acids, or building blocks, the body needs.
- Added sugars. Sugars are often added to non-dairy alternatives because they do not contain lactose, the sugar naturally present in cow’s milk that provides natural sweetness.
Value. Cow’s milk is not only naturally nutrient-rich, but it costs less than non-dairy alternatives, making cow’s milk a nutritional bargain compared to other beverages.
Weigh your options. While some lactose intolerant consumers choose non-dairy alternatives because they do not contain lactose, they may want to consider a lactose-free cow’s milk option. According to a recent Harvard Medical School newsletter evaluating non-dairy milk alternatives, they suggest consumers should try lactose-free cow’s milk first, unless they have a milk allergy. Lactose intolerance is a very individual condition and many people with lactose intolerance can still comfortably consume dairy foods in varying amounts or forms, such as small amounts of cow’s milk at a time with meals. For more information about lactose intolerance visit our recent blog.
Cow’s milk is a naturally nutrient-rich beverage associated with improved bone health and other benefits. While there are a number of non-dairy or plant-based milk alternatives in the marketplace, they are not a match for the nutritional and economic value of cow’s milk, which is why cow’s milk is recommended by both government and health professionals. For more information about non-dairy alternatives and how they stack up to cow’s milk refer to Milk the Real Deal.