Whether for personal reasons or due to allergies, millions of people choose to avoid drinking cow’s milk. With all of the options available, it can be difficult to find a dairy alternative that provides the nutrients comparable to those found in cow’s milk. While you can certainly meet all of your nutrient needs without consuming any dairy, most plant-based milks are not adequate by themselves. Here are some options, and how they stack up.
Similar to cow’s milk, soy milk provides about 8 grams of protein per cup. It is rich in, or is fortified with, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin B-12. Soy milk is also a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid, which is a natural anti-inflammatory. Considering its nutrient profile, it is the only acceptable replacement that’s almost an equal swap for cow’s milk.
Almond milk is naturally high in several nutrients such as potassium, vitamin E, iron, zinc, fiber, phosphorus, selenium, magnesium, and calcium. However, on average, it only offers a measly 1 gram of protein per serving. Almond milk is one of the most popular choices for people with lactose intolerance. It's become so popular that it’s easy to find ice cream, coffee creamer and other products that are made from it. Additionally, the most popular almond milk has become the flavored variety that can contain up to 10 grams of added sugar.
For those that prefer whole milk, coconut milk is the most similar in texture and fat content. Coconut milk is a great source of healthy fats, potassium and fortified with several vitamins, but this high-fat profile makes it a high-calorie beverage that has zero protein. Like almond milk, the flavored varieties have grown in popularity, most likely due to the amount of added sugar.
The only benefit to rice milk is that it is lactose-free. It can have the highest sugar content than other plant-based milks. It has very little nutritional value with only 1 gram of protein per serving. The best thing about rice milk is that holds up well in baking lactose-free goods.
The most popular “new” milk is pea milk. Many brands contain protein that is comparable to that found in cow’s milk; however, they are also high in omega 6 fatty acids that promote inflammation and are fortified with omega-3 fatty acids to help neutralize any inflammation. As the science behind pea milk develops, this may become the next big thing for replacing cow’s milk.
Other Non-Dairy Milks
Other plant-based milks include oat, cashew, hemp, and flax milk. Oat milk provides fiber and about 4 grams of protein per serving. Because of this it typically has a higher sugar content because it is made with a blend of oat, rice and barley. Like almond milk, cashew milk is a poor source of protein but does offer fiber and is rich in antioxidants. While hemp milk is naturally high in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids and essential amino acids, it only has 2-3 grams of protein and is a poor source of calcium. Flax milk is low in calories and protein but is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. 1 serving provides 30% of the recommended amount of calcium and 25% of vitamin D.
It is possible to avoid drinking cow’s milk and still have a diet rich in all of the nutrients that are found in it. It is important to read labels and understand the nutritional profile of each item, and supplement the diet with foods that are high in those nutrients that tend to be lacking in the type of plant-based milk that is consumed.
Speak with a CHI Health Dietitian today to see which milk is right for you.
Original post date: August, 2016. Revised: February, 2019.