It seems like the grocery store dairy case is getting fuller every day, not with cow’s milk, but with plant-based milk alternatives. They can be good substitutes for those who can’t tolerate dairy. The choices seem endless, but are they nutritionally complete? How do they compare to dairy?
How are milk alternatives produced? You can’t milk an almond or a soybean.
A milk alternative is water with dissolved or strained plant materials. It is then homogenized, and thermal treatments improve the appearance and stability of the “milk.” While they are made to look like cow’s milk, they often have variable nutritional properties.
Soy milk started appearing on store shelves in the 1950’s and probably remains the most commonly recognized milk alternative. It has the same amount of protein as cow’s milk (about 8 grams/cup) along with omega-3 fatty acids. Most soy milk is fortified with Calcium and Vitamin D, as well as Vitamin A and B12.
Likely the second most popular milk alternative, unsweetened almond milk is low in calories (around 50 calories per cup). However, if you choose flavored almond milk, you’ll take in more calories and added sugar. For example, chocolate almond milk can contain 90-100 calories per cup and 16 grams of sugar, which is about four teaspoons. Nut-based milk typically includes a lot of water, and while that helps keep calories low, it also dilutes nutrients. Almond milk can be low in protein due to the method of straining used to make it. A cup of almond milk may have 1 gram of protein per cup—compare that with 8 grams in a cup of cow’s milk. Almond milk is typically fortified with vitamins and minerals, and almond milk is naturally high in Vitamin E.
Rice milk has the advantage of being the most hypoallergenic of the milk alternatives, but nutritionally it offers few benefits. It’s low in protein and high in carbohydrates. Most brands are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.
Traditional coconut milk is not something you’d usually drink. It’s used in cooking, particularly in Southeast Asian dishes. Typically, it’s found in a can. What you’ll see in the refrigerator case is coconut milk beverage, which is made from highly diluted coconut milk. Just like rice and almond milk, this means that it contains very little protein (about 1 gram per cup). Most brands are fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium, and also contains fiber, iron, and potassium.
One new “milk” I’ve seen this past year is pea milk. This milk is made from yellow field peas; it contains protein comparable to soy or cow’s milk (about 7 grams per cup). Pea milk is also fortified with more calcium than cow’s milk and tastes more like regular cow’s milk. Be prepared for some sticker shock; some retailers have it listed for almost $5 for less than half a gallon.