Do Dairy Alternatives Measure Up To Milk?

Dairy milk is one of the best-known sources of calcium, but today, a growing number of us are buying nondairy milk alternatives. Do these options deliver equivalent health benefits? We compare milk with the most popular nondairy products and show you how they measure up.

The “Got Milk” campaign is an iconic part of popular culture. Everyone knows that milk delivers the nutrients our bones need to stay strong. However, alternatives to cow’s milk are increasingly popular. Lactose intolerance prompts some people to seek nondairy alternatives. Others want to avoid hormones and antibiotics. Those with ethical reasons to embrace a vegan diet are reaching for plant-based milk alternatives.

Today, U.S. consumers spend over $1 billion on almond, rice, soy, coconut, and other nondairy milk products, putting a significant dent in the milk market. Nondairy products may be an attractive and sometimes necessary substitute for some people, but that doesn’t mean that these products are milk’s nutritional equals. Because some products are fortified, exact comparisons are difficult. We use the USDA National Nutrient Database to compare milk with some of the most popular nondairy milks to explore the health benefits of each option.

A glass of traditional skim milk is an excellent source of high-quality protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamins B12 and K—and is often fortified with vitamin D. The protein in milk increases your ability to absorb minerals and supports muscle growth and maintenance.

  • Calories in one cup of nonfat milk: 86
  • Protein: 8.4 grams
  • Calcium: 504 milligrams
  • Some people have milk allergies, but the condition is rare.

Soy milk, like cow’s milk, is often fortified and probably has the closest nutrient profile to milk. It is a good source of vitamin A, B12, vitamin D, and potassium, but it does contain about twice as much fat as dairy milk.

  • Calories in one cup of plain soymilk: 41
  • Protein: 2.88 grams
  • Calcium: 123 milligrams
  • Soy can cause bloating in people with gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome.

Almond milk is popular for its sweet taste, creamy texture, and low calorie count, but lacks many of the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk.

  • Calories in one cup of unsweetened almond milk: 15
  • Protein: .59 grams
  • Calcium: 197 milligrams
  • Like other nut milks, almond milk is not appropriate for people with a nut allergy.

Rice milk conforms to vegetarian needs, but is very low in nutrients unless fortified.

  • Calories in one cup of unsweetened rice milk: 47
  • Protein: .28 grams
  • Calcium: 118 milligrams
  • This is the least allergenic of milk alternatives.

Dairy alternatives for cow’s milk do not provide the nutrient profile that infants need, and should never completely replace milk for children under two years of age. If you want to replace cow’s milk in your diet, it’s important to find and include other good sources of calcium and protein in your eating pattern.

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