Milk Alternatives: A Dietitian’s Guide
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Almond, Oat, and Soy, Oh My!
If you get confused walking down the dairy aisle, you aren’t alone. Milk products are literally scattered all over the grocery store these days and the variety of options can make it extremely confusing to know if you’re getting the *right* product.
Chances are you know someone who doesn’t drink the traditional cup of cows milk per day, but opts for a plant based option instead. It may have you wondering if you should be drinking a plant based option too and if so, where the heck should you start?
No worries. I’m going to break down the pros and cons of each type to help make your decision easier.
Dairy (Cow’s) Milk
Cow’s milk has been recommended for thousands of years by practitioners to meet the dietary needs of humans. The benefits and reasoning behind cow milk nutrient recommendations are well backed by evidence and well known around the globe. You may be wondering, if it’s so “good” then why are there all these different options of non-dairy based milks? Great question, we’re going to get to that here in a minute.
Is cow's milk a smart choice?
Nutritionally, with it’s high protein content and good balance of nutrients including calcium, magnesium, folate, and vitamin D, cow’s milk is a smart choice. Unless there’s a medical or ethical reason to avoid cow’s milk, it’s a nutritious (and affordable) choice.
When should you try a plant based alternative?
Did you know that over 15 million Americans, including 8% of children, are affected by some type of food allergy? That’s a whole lot of people who need to find substitutes for otherwise “normal” foods. 90% of these people have one of the ‘8 Big Food Allergens’, one of which is MILK.
Needless to say, milk allergies and medical complications are a large reason behind why so many milk options exist. They were created to fill a demand gap in the diet of those who physically could not digest regular cows milk. Plant based milk options were never intended to be “trendy”, but rather practical for those in need.
Common Plant Based Milk Options
1. Grain Based Milks — Oat and Rice
PROS: A big pro to grain based milks is that they are super allergen friendly — nut, soy, and lactose free. They also help to lower your cholesterol and play a role in digestive health.
CONS: They tend to be significantly lower in protein (2-5 grams per serving) than cows milk (8 grams per serving).
DIETITIAN VERDICT: Great option for those with allergies, but wouldn’t recommend for children or those who use milk as a protein source.
Grain Based Brands Found in Most Grocery Stores (not an ad)
2. Nut-Based Milks — Almond, Coconut, Cashew
PROS: Nut based milks are super versatile and often well liked by people who drink cow’s milk. Nut based milks are notorious for being way lower in calories (25-50 calories per serving) than cow’s milk (100+ calories per serving), making them a great option for weight loss. Most also contain practically no sugar (0-1 gram per serving), where cow’s milk contains more (13 grams per serving).
CONS: Can carry a nutty taste, depending on the brand. They have significantly less protein (0-1 gram per serving) compared to cow’s milk (8 grams per serving).
DIETITIAN VERDICT: Nut milks are a great option for those looking to lower their calories but are not a great option for those looking specifically for an equal milk protein substitute.
Nut Based Brands Found in Most Grocery Stores (not an ad)
Almond Breeze — This is the brand I use!
3. Legume-Based Milks - Soy and Pea
PROS: Legume milks are similarly high in protein (7-8 grams per serving) to cow's milk (8 g per serving) but significantly lower in sugar (1 gram per serving) and calories (80-90 calories per serving) than crows milk (100+ calories and 13 grams protein per serving). They also are a great source of Vitamin D and B12, plus they are lactose free.
CONS: Although they are lactose free, they can contain other potential allergens, like soy, that may be harmful. They are also not a great option for those that have too much estrogen in their system.
DIETITIAN VERDICT: Soy milk is the closest to cows milk, nutritionally, out of all plant based options. It’s a great alternative for lactose free options but should be avoided by those with a soy allergy.
Legume Based Brands Found in Most Grocery Stores (not an ad)
4. Seed-Based Milks - Hemp and Flax
PROS: Seed based milks are generally made from healthier fats, making these milks a great supplement to your diet. They also tend to be lower in sugar (0-9 grams per serving) than cow’s milk (13 g per serving)
CONS: Again, seed-based milks are lower in protein (4 grams per serving) than cow’s milk (8 grams per serving).
DIETITIAN VERDICT: Great for brain and heart health due to the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Legume Based Brands Found in Most Grocery Stores (not an ad)
What about my kids?
There is some research out there exploring whether or not plant-based milks meet the needs of growing children, however more research is needed before a complete solution can be made. As a general recommendation, children under the age of 2 years old shouldn’t be offered plant-based alternatives unless there is a nutrition allergy or diagnosis like those outlined above. Of course, if you think it may be an option for your child, always consult your pediatrician, primary care physician or personal dietitian before making any changes.
All in all, it comes down to your personal preference, nutrition goals, and family needs. Personally, I choose to drink unsweetened Almond Milk. I choose this because 1) I like the taste 2) I have a sensitivity to lactose 3) I don’t have any children’s needs to consider.
If you have any questions, or want some advice on choosing the right milk for your family, drop a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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About the Author
Ashley Mulkern, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Masters of Science in Nutritional Sciences and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from the University of Cincinnati. She loves anything covered in chocolate, sprinkles, or butter. Her favorite things to do are exercising, baking, and reading.