This question, which would have seemed fairly simple a decade ago, has turned jaunts through the grocery store dairy aisle for a quick pick-up into ones fraught with sheer confusion. No longer is it between skim, 1%, 2%, or whole. Now there are an abundance of dairy alternatives from which to choose, which has, if nothing else, opened up the dairy aisle for those with allergies, lactose intolerance, or vegetarian/vegan diets. So how do you decide which milk is right for you?
First, consider what nutritional place milk has in your diet. For most, the main nutrients cow’s milk will provide are:
1. A complete protein (8 grams per 8 oz)
3. Vitamin D
If cow’s milks is a big contributor to you meeting these nutrient needs, then you need to make sure your alternative dairy choice either meets those needs as well or they are met elsewhere in the diet. (Worth noting: cow’s milk provides other nutrients, such as fluid, phosphorus, sodium, vitamin B12, and potassium – it may not be the main source in the diet but shouldn’t be overlooked.)
Second, get comfortable with the label – in particular the nutrition facts panel and the ingredients list. Almost everything you need to know will be located here. Don’t be afraid to hold them up side-by-side. So let’s take a look at some of the milk alternatives available today and how they compare.
One of the original dairy alternatives. Soy milk (and soy in general) has been integral in the vegan and vegetarian diet, mostly because soy provides a complete protein in similar quantities to cow’s milk and it is also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Unfortunately, some folks have difficulty digesting soy. This may be alleviated by choosing a soy milk made from soy protein rather than whole soybeans (it’s typically the carbohydrate from the soybean that contributes to gas production and/or diarrhea.) For those with soy allergies, soy milk is a no-go.
One of the favorites these days due to the low-calorie options. Unfortunately, while almond milk is fortified with vitamin D and has 1.5 times the amount of calcium as cow’s milk, the protein amount comes in at only 1 gram per 8 oz serving. The lesson: if you choose almond milk it can’t be your source of protein at a meal. It’s also off the table for those with a tree nut allergy.
Rice milk is similar to almond milk in that it is fortified with calcium and vitamin D (along with vitamin B12) and it also only has 1 gram of protein per 8oz serving. For folks with multiple food allergies, rice is typically well tolerated. But again, not the best choice as the protein source at a meal. It actually functions more as a source of carbohydrate due to the starch content in rice.
One of the newer milk alternatives on the market, hemp milk does provide a complete protein but it’s still less than soy or cow’s milk (ranges from 3 to 5 grams per 8 oz serving). It is typically fortified with calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and a few other trace vitamins and minerals. It has a lower carbohydrate and higher fat content than other milk options, but the fat is unsaturated compared to the saturated fat found in animal sources. Similar to rice milk, hemp may be a good option for those with multiple food allergies.
Sometimes it’s necessary to get in the weeds with nutrients in order to compare apples to oranges, or in this case, cow’s milk to milk alternatives. Remember that in life it’s best to think of food as the whole food, not just for the individual nutrients it can provide. Otherwise, it can become overwhelming (it’s not have some vitamin C for breakfast, it’s have an orange), and that’s why a balanced and varied diet is recommended. So if you want to keep your almond milk for breakfast, now you know it’s a good idea to have some eggs with it, too.