July 2020 Got Milk Alternatives?
By Hannah Hinckley
As plant-based milk alternatives increase in popularity, there is now an overwhelming variety of substitutes to choose from. The diversity of options range from lactose-free cow’s milk to “milk” made from nuts, grains, seeds, and even fruits. Now that the milk aisle is nearly as big as the cereal aisle, and there’s evident pros/cons to different choices, it can be hard to decide “which milk is best for me?”. Even more, the answer is challenging when taking into consideration preferences, sensitivities, allergies, environmental concerns, cost, marketing, and unique nutritional needs. Consider the following nutritional factors when deciding what milk is best for you.
Why are more people switching over to non-dairy milk alternatives?
Lactose intolerance is a common reason why many choose a lactose- or dairy-free alternative to traditional cow’s milk. Someone with lactose intolerance cannot properly digest lactose—a naturally occurring sugar in dairy—due to a deficiency in the enzyme lactase. Lactase deficiency can occur as a normal part of aging or in tandem with gastrointestinal conditions.
Others who tolerate lactose well may still opt for milk alternatives due to taste preferences, dietary goals, concerns for environmental sustainability, or misconceptions about dairy.
How comparable is the nutritional content of plant-based milk to cow’s milk?
The nutritional content of cow’s milk makes it a very unique beverage. Dairy is one of the only foods that contain all three macronutrients—carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Few milk alternatives match the nutrient-profile of cow’s milk.
Milk is a good source of complete proteins (both casein and whey), while many non-dairy milks do not contain a significant amount of protein. However, soy milk and pea milk both contain comparable amounts of protein to cow’s milk.
Vitamins and Minerals
Dairy is known for being a good source of calcium and vitamin D. Many (not all) plant-based milk alternatives are fortified with these important micronutrients, but it’s important to check the nutrition fact label to make sure.
One major difference between dairy milk and plant-based milk is that dairy contains lactose, and plant-based milks don’t have this natural sugar. Many plant-based milk alternatives contain added sugars, whereas plain cow’s milk does not have added sugar. Unless a plant-based milk has been labeled as unsweetened, it may be a hidden source of added sugars (this information can be found on the nutrition fact label).
There are many different types of fat. Unsaturated fats are deemed as “healthy fats”, whereas it is recommended to limit saturated fat and avoid trans fat. Full-fat cow’s milk contains saturated fat, skim cow’s milk does not, and most plant-based milks have low-to-no saturated fat. Plant-based milks tend to be high in unsaturated fats.
Aside from being a possible source of added sugar and typically lower in protein, vitamin D and calcium, milk alternatives are considered a nutritionally sound choice.
Is soy milk a suitable alternative to cow’s milk?
Plant-based milk alternatives tend to cost more than dairy milk, yet soy milk is fairly comparable in price. In fact, soy milk has been touted as the most comparable alternative to cow’s milk in many ways and is considered a nutritious and safe choice.
Soy is a controversial topic pertaining to breast cancer and heart disease and it’s no wonder people feel conflicted by the research and recommendations. According to the FDA, there is some evidence that suggests that soy foods can reduce risk for heart disease, but when considering the totality of all available scientific evidence, there is questionable certainty about this health claim. The FDA is not questioning whether soy lowers cholesterol, rather, the concern is the promise for “how much” it has this affect.
There is a common concern that soy products, including soy milk, have potentially harmful “estrogen-like” effects in the body causing cancer cells to grow. While the research in this area isn’t conclusive, the research available does suggest that soy actually has a protective effect against cancer. Many of the studies showing that soy increases risk for breast cancer were completed in rodents, and now it is known that humans metabolize soy differently than rodents so the results from these studies cannot be readily translated into recommendations for humans.
Bottom Line—Which type of milk is the best choice for me?
The best type of milk for each individual depends on many factors. The table below compares dairy milk to some popular non-dairy options. Soy milk is a great choice for a plant-based alternative because it has the protein content most similar to dairy milk, contains more healthy fats and fewer calories, and is one of the most affordable plant-based milk options. The bottom line is that milk alternatives can meet nutrient requirements and are comparable to dairy milk in many ways, and the key is to find an option that suits your unique nutrition needs, preferences, and budget.
|Type of Milk *indicates Big 8 allergen||Macronutrient Composition 1 cup or 240 mL||Micronutrients % Daily Value (DV) for 2000 Calorie intake|
|Organic Valley Skim Milk*||100 Calories | 10 g Protein | 0 g Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||15% DV Vitamin D | 25% DV Calcium|
|Organic Valley 1% Milk*||120 Calories | 11 g Protein | 2.5 g Fat | 1.5 g Saturated Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||15% DV Vitamin D | 30% DV Calcium|
|Organic Valley 2% Milk*||130 Calories | 10 g Protein | 3 g Saturated Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||15% DV Vitamin D | 25% DV Calcium|
|Organic Valley Whole Milk*||150 Calories | 8 g Protein | 8 g Fat | 5 g Saturated Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||15% DV Vitamin D | 20% DV Calcium|
|Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk*||30 Calories | 1 g Protein | 2.5 g Fat | 0.5 g Saturated Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||10% DV Vitamin D | 30% DV Calcium|
|Silk Unsweetened Oat Milk*||60 Calories | 1 g Protein | 3 g Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||15% DV Vitamin D | 35% DV Calcium|
|Silk Unsweetened Soymilk||80 Calories | 7 g Protein | 4 g Fat | 0.5 g Saturated Fat | 0 g Added Sugars||15% DV Vitamin D | 20% DV Calcium|
Get to know our author:
Hinckley is a 4th year Undergraduate student majoring in Food Science and Human Nutrition with a concentration in Nutritional Sciences. Hinckley is interested in how diet affects the gut microbiome and the ways in which this can impact other aspects of physical and mental health. She is also interested in the treatment and prevention of gastrointestinal disorders and metabolic syndrome. Fun Fact about Hinckley: she spends her free time planning and sewing quilts.
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