Not All Milks Are Equal

If you’ve ever been on a field trip to a dairy farm you know where milk comes from – maybe you even squeezed out a pail yourself. Now, imagine how tiny your hands would have to be to get a good grip on the udders of an almond, and how many almonds you’d have to milk to get a gallon of almond milk. OK, almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk and hemp milk are not actually milk. But, in some cases these products might be just what you need.

The many “new” varieties of milk have increased over the past decade in response to consumer demand for other alternatives to cow’s milk due to intolerances, allergies, or diet choices (to follow a vegetarian/vegan diet). But if you’re steering clear of cow’s milk, there are some important nutrition concerns you need to know.

First of all, cow’s milk and other dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are the top sources of calcium, which is important for building strong bones, and for other metabolic purposes. One cup (8 ounces) of cow’s milk, whether it is low fat or full fat, contains approximately 300 milligrams of calcium and 100 international units of vitamin D. Most alternative milks are fortified with comparable levels of calcium and vitamin D (some coconut milk is not fortified). Alternative milks are also fortified with vitamin B12, an essential nutrient naturally occurring only in animal products.

Milk protein is very high quality, containing all essential amino acids (amino acids we must get from our diet) in an appropriate ratio. Soy protein is on par, more or less, with the protein in cow’s milk, but alternative milks other than soy milk may be lacking protein. Potassium is another key nutrient, especially for blood pressure control, and while soy milk is comparable to cow’s milk for potassium, other alternatives may not be.

Finally, while cow’s milk contains the natural sugar lactose, many alternative milks are sweetened with added sugar. Also, alternative milks are not necessarily lower calorie alternatives to cow’s milk, especially nonfat milk, and low fat cow’s milk has been associated with weight loss in some studies.

The amount of all of these important nutrients varies between milk alternative brands so checking the nutrition facts label is critical. The nutrient facts panel on the label is like a window into the contents of the food product. Look for calcium to be at least 30% of the “percent daily values”, equivalent to the 300 milligrams of calcium found in one cup of cow’s milk. Alternative milks are great as long as you know what nutrients you might be missing, and have a plan to get those elsewhere.

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