In the dairy case, shelf space is being made for nut, seed, and bean-based beverages, and while some of these products have undeniably healthy proprieties; they are not a direct replacement for milk.
The nutrient profiles of these alternative beverages vary greatly, and we know little about how these drinks contribute to long-term health. Cow’s milk has been subject to years of rigorous, scientific research, which has created a library of data regarding its consumption and health implications.
The newness of many of these alternatives leaves us with little evidence as to their long-term impact. Let's look at these products in a bit more detail..
Milk Alternatives, the basics:
Calling these alternative beverages “milk” is a bit of a misnomer, since milk refers to the nutrient-rich fluid secreted by female mammals for the purpose of nourishing their young, so “beverage” is the more appropriate term.
Made from soybeans, soy-based drinks are a good source of protein; however, the protein is of lower quality than the whey protein found in dairy products.
Rice-based beverages are generally processed from brown rice. They are fortified with nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D but limited in protein content.
Nut-based beverages can be ground from any nut, but the most popular is almond. Almonds are naturally packed with healthful nutrients, but the actual almond content per glass can vary among brands, and at just 1g per serving, protein content is low.
Seed-based beverages, such as hemp and flax, are a rich-source of plant-based omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but their overall nutrient profile varies.
Cow’s milk is a “good” (provides ³ 10% of the daily value of a particular nutrient) or “excellent” (provides ³ 20% of the daily value of a particular nutrient) source of nine essential nutrients.
Whether you prefer skim, 1%, 2%, whole milk or lactose-free varieties, all milk contains the same naturally occurring nutrients.
Plant-based milk alternatives (rice, hemp, soy, almond etc.) are widely variable in their nutrient profiles and do not replicate the unique combination of nutrients found in cow’s milk.
Protein is a key component of cow’s milk that contributes to bone health, growth, satiety, immune function, and muscle recovery.
Milk has more total protein than rice, almond and other nut-based beverages (cow’s milk boasts over 8g of protein per 8oz serving compared to 4.5g in soy and 1g per 8oz serving in rice and almond varieties). Dairy products also provide the highest quality protein in the form of whey protein, a protein that is not found in any other alternative beverage.
Cow’s milk products are the richest source of well-absorbed calcium. Research shows that the calcium in cow’s milk is absorbed 25% better than that found in soy beverages. An 8-oz serving of cow’s milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. It would take 500 mg of calcium in an 8-oz serving of fortified soy to equate.
The unique combination of calcium & protein in cow’s milk contributes significantly to bone health. With very little protein, rice and almond alternatives may not have the same impact on bone.
Cow’s milk contains the naturally occurring sugar, lactose – 12g per 8oz serving. White milk contains no added sugars.
If you are concerned about added sugars, check labels of milk alternatives; some brands add small amounts of sugar even to plain varieties to improve taste.
Per glass, the calorie counts of milk alternatives can vary wildly. Check the tables below as well as individual brand labels to know what you are getting.
What about Lactose Intolerance? Those who are unable to digest lactose, the natural sugar found in milk, can still enjoy dairy products. Lactose-free dairy products are made from real milk – the lactose has been removed - and can be a great nutrient-rich alternative in addition to yogurt and aged, natural cheeses, which naturally have lower levels of lactose. Milk alternatives do not contain lactose. The amount of lactose in goat’s milk is similar to cow’s milk.
What about allergies? A milk allergy, defined as an immune response to the protein found in milk, is different than lactose intolerance. Milk allergies are rare, and many children who suffer from allergies during infancy will outgrow these later in life. Those with milk allergies must avoid dairy. Soy, and nuts are also common allergens, so use caution when making food and drink choices. Rice beverages may be a suitable choice; however, other nutrient-rich foods must supplement the diet.
Table 1: Nutrient comparison of cow’s milk, almond, rice and soy beverage
Daily Value Cow’s Milk, Fat-free Almond Breeze® Original Rice Dream® Original Enriched Soy Beverage, Calcium-fortified
Serving Size 8 fl oz 8 fl oz 8 fl oz 8 fl oz
Calories 2000 83 57 120* 98*
Calcium (mg) 1000 306 198* 300 368
Potassium (mg) 3500 382 179* 69* 225*
Phosphorus (mg) 1000 247 114* 150* 225
Vitamin A (IU) 5000 500 500 500 1098
Vitamin D (IU) 400 100 100 100 122
Vitamin B12 (mg) 6 1.3 N/A 1.5 2.99
Riboflavin (mg) 1.7 0.4 N/A 0.012* 0.53
Niacin (mg) 20 0.23 N/A 1.91 0.94
Vitamin C (mg) 60 0 0 1.2 0
Iron (mg) 18 0.07 0.4 0.72 1.6
Protein (g) 50 8.26 1.10* 1* 4.58*
Total Carbohydrate (g) 300 12.2 7.6 23 11.2
Total Fat (g) 65 0.2 2.6 2 4
* Indicates nutrient value for which cow’s milk is superior.
Sources: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 19. http://www.ars.usda.gov/nutrientdata
Almond Breeze: http://www.bluediamond.com/retail/breeze/index.cfm
Rice Dream: http://www.tastethedream.com/index.php