Milk & Milk Alternatives: The Nutrition

In the last few years, non-dairy milk alternatives have been rising in popularity. There are so many options on the market these days and it can be totally overwhelming when choosing the best option for you. Today I’m breaking down the nutrition profiles of some of the most popular milk & alternative beverages on the market.

Please note, there are many reasons someone may choose the specific milk or milk alternative beverage that they do. We’re all individuals and that means we have different needs, different taste preferences, and different beliefs. There is no judgement here, and I encourage you to seek a Registered Dietitian if you are unsure of the best option for you.

Cow’s Milk

The majority of us have likely drunk cows milk at some point in our lives. Whether as a child or in a latte, cow’s milk is probably the most common choice from all of milk and alternatives out there.

The Nutrition: Cow’s milk (per 250mL)

Calories: 90 to 150 calories (0% skim to 3.3% whole milk)

Fat: 0 to 8 grams (0% skim to 3.3% whole milk)

Protein: 8 grams

Calcium: 300 milligrams (30% Daily Value)

Lactose: Yes

Additional: Cow’s milk in Canada is fortified with Vitamin D. This is because Vitamin D plays a role in calcium absorption in the body. Additionally, cow’s milk contains a number of vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium, zinc, most B vitamins, and vitamins A and K.

 

Soy Milk

Soy Milk was probably the most popular cow’s milk alternative until the rise in popularity of nut milks. Soy milk is made from soybeans, which are first soaked, then ground. The ground mixture is boiled and then the remaining particles are filtered out. Soy Milk may be sweetened or flavoured as well.

The Nutrition: Soy Milk (per 250mL)

Calories: 110 calories

Fat: 4 grams

Protein: 8 grams

Calcium: 300 milligrams (fortified)

Lactose: No

Additional: Different from dairy, soy products like soy milk are lower in cholesterol and a source of isoflavones. Isoflavones are a class of phytochemicals which have been reported to have a number of benefits including the promotion of heart health and reduction of menopause symptoms (e.g. hot flashes).

Isn’t too much soy bad for me? I’ve heard this question many times. While the research is limited, I’ll leave it to my fellow dietitian Andy The RD to do the myth busting.

 

Nut Milk (Almond, Cashew, etc.)

Nut “milks” like almond and cashew milk continue to rise in popularity as a milk alternative. They’re made similarly to soy milk – by grinding with water and straining out any remaining particles. They are often sweetened or flavoured, but there is usually always an unflavoured, unsweetened variety in stores.

The Nutrition: Nut Milk (per 250mL)

Calories: 40 calories

Fat: 4 grams

Protein: 1.5 grams

Calcium: 300 milligrams (fortified), may vary depending on the brand

Lactose: No

Additional: These days, most nut milks are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D, providing similar amounts – if not a little more than cow’s milk. One benefit of nut milks is that they are both dairy and soy free. So, if you have reason to avoid both cow’s milk and soy milk (i.e. allergies, etc.) then these are an option for you. Additionally, because nut milks are totally plant-based, they are also cholesterol-free. If you’re looking for an alternative that most resembles cow’s milk, a nut milk may not be your best choice. Nut milks are low in protein and lack some of the key nutrients found in cow’s milk. That being said, there are many ways to get these nutrients through your food and seeking advice from a dietitian can help you ensure that you do so.

 

Oat Milk

Oat milk is becoming quite trendy as a non-dairy milk alternative. If you’re curious how oat milk is made, I did a little research:

Oat milk is made by milling oats with water, followed by a process called “enzyming”, in which enzymes are added that break down the oat starches into smaller components. The next step is separation, where the oat bran (the outer shell) is removed, leaving behind loose fibres. From there, different ingredients are added (this is where fortification with substances like calcium and vitamins are added), the product is heat-treated (pasteurization) to extend shelf life, and then packaged.

 The Nutrition: Oat Milk (per 250mL)

Calories: 125 calories

Fat: 4 grams

Protein: 2.5 grams

Calcium: Depends of the brand

Lactose: No

Additional: Oat milk is similar to nut milks in that it’s lower in fat and protein compared to cow’s milk or soy varieties and may be lacking in some of the same nutrients, although it is higher in calories. Oat milk has a different flavour than almond or cashew milk, so if you’re not a fan of the nutty flavour of almond milk, oat milk may be an alternative for you. Again, like soy milk, oat milk is cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat.

 

Coconut Milk

 Now, there are two types of coconut milk: canned coconut milk and coconut milk in a carton (that you would find on the same shelf as almond, cashew, soy, etc.). Canned coconut milk is not typically meant for drinking as you would a cow’s, almond, or soy milk. It’s typically used in cooking (think curries, sauces, etc). The “cartonned” coconut milk is meant for consumption as you would another milk beverage. It’s made by pressing the coconut meat to extract coconut cream, which is then blended with water and other ingredients (vitamins and possibly flavours or sweeteners).

The Nutrition: [Carton] Coconut Milk (per 250mL)

Calories: 45 – 80 calories

Fat: 4 grams

Protein: 0 grams

Calcium: Depends on the brand

Lactose: No

Additional: As you can see, coconut milk is void of any protein at all. It is similar to nut milks in terms of calories and fat and it is also a lactose-free, cholesterol-free option. The fortification levels of calcium/vitamin D will vary depending on which brand you choose. Therefore, it’s important to read nutrition labels and look for a product with approximately 30% daily value of calcium and Vitamin D. It’s coconut flavour may be preferred over nut milks.

 

To summarize:

  • There are a lot of options on the market and it can be difficult or overwhelming when choosing a milk or milk alternative at the grocery store.
  • From a nutrition standpoint, soy milk is the closest in comparison to traditional cow’s milk.
  • Nut milks, oat milk, and coconut milks are lower in both protein and fat.
  • Only animal milks such as cow’s milk have naturally occurring calcium. Some plant milks are fortified with calcium and some are not. Look for approximately 30% DV calcium on the nutrition label.
  • Plant-based milks may not contain the same amount of vitamins that are naturally occurring in cow’s milk (magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B12, vitamin B6)
  • As per recommendations from Health Canada, plant based milks are not an appropriate substitution for breast milk, infant formula, or whole cow’s milk from infancy to 2 years.

 

Hopefully this breakdown will help you in your grocery shopping endeavors! Please do not hesitate to leave a comment, send me an e-mail, or seek the advice of a Registered Dietitian if you have questions or concerns.

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