With so many options to select from in the grocery store, which non-dairy milk will you choose? For those looking for an alternative to cow’s milk, nutrition Expert Taryn Schubert breaks down a few of her favorites to substitute in any lifestyle.
When I became lactose intolerant earlier this year, I decided to give soy milk a try as a milk replacement. I remember walking over to the dairy section and thinking: “how will I ever find the soy milk I want?” The business of milk replacements is definitely booming. There’s soy milk, cashew milk, almond milk, coconut milk along with all the various flavors they come in. If you walk into the grocery store not knowing what kind to get, I don’t know how you could make a decision with all those options staring you in the face!
Cow’s milk is a great source of calcium and protein, and is usually fortified with extra vitamin D. Vitamin D does occur naturally in milk in small amounts and promotes calcium absorption. There are people, though, who can’t drink milk (e.g. lactose intolerant); don’t like to drink milk; or, for ethical reasons, won’t drink milk.
For the following milk alternatives, let’s compare unsweetened substitute options fortified with calcium and vitamin D to a glass of non-fat milk. The main difference between the unsweetened and various flavor options are the different amounts of added sugar (sometimes up to 20g per serving).
On a nutrient basis, soy milk is closest to milk. It provides 7g of protein per serving compared to milk’s 8g, and about the same amount of calcium and vitamin D. Soy milk is a healthy alternative to milk, despite what a Google search will tell you. There is a lot of misinformation about soy. While soy does have a component of it that is similar to estrogen called phytoestrogen, it has not been shown to cause an increased risk of breast cancer. Phytoestrogens are not unique to soy; they can also be found in berries, yams, rice, spinach, and wine to name a few. So don’t let fear hold you back from drinking soy milk!
Almond and cashew milk are growing in popularity and are nutritionally similar. Both are great sources of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin E, as well as providing about the same amount of vitamin D and a bit more calcium as milk. If you are purchasing your nut milks from the stores, both are very low in protein despite nuts being a great source of protein. Unfortunately, nut milks are mostly water, and it is unclear how many nuts are actually used to make it. You’re not going to get more than 1g per serving of protein with any of the store bought nut milks, but as long as you’re getting protein from other sources it’s not something to worry too much about.
You can also make your own nut milks so you can control the nut content, which is incredibly easy by simply soaking nuts overnight in water, and blending it with water. With homemade nut milks, you may be able to increase the protein content depending on how many nuts you use. Because the pulp is discarded you will still have nutrient loss when comparing the nut milk to the original milk, although another option is to not strain the pulp so you may keep the nutrient profile intact. Homemade nut milks tend to have less calcium and vitamin D because store brands fortify their milks.
Coconut milk is somewhat of an emerging food in the Western diet, although it’s been a staple in other cultures for centuries. Coconut milk available in U.S. grocery stores is sometimes, but not always, fortified with calcium and vitamin D. The amount that is fortified is inconsistent; sometimes it provides similar amounts of calcium and vitamin D to milk but sometimes it provides less so make sure to check your labels.
It is also high in fat, which consist primarily of medium chain saturated fatty acids. Research has suggested that coconut milk may have some cardiovascular benefits. Just remember that high fat foods are also high in calories. So if your goal is weight loss, don’t forget to count your coconut milk in your daily caloric intake.
For all of these milk alternatives, definitely double check the nutrition label before buying to make sure the substitute is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and isn’t hiding any added sugar in the ingredient list. With so many milk alternatives to choose from, there is definitely something for everyone!
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Taryn Schubert, RD is a Los Angeles-based Registered Dietitian who helps people create healthy diets that fit their lifestyle. With her specialty in adult weight management and mindful eating, Taryn believes food should be a source of joy and nourishment, not “good” or “bad” in the way society perpetuates. Visit Taryn and begin creating your healthier relationship with food.