By Michelle Gleason, RDN, LRD, clinical dietitian
Milk and other dairy products make up part of a healthy diet, as they are a top source of calcium and vitamin D for many Americans. Calcium is a mineral needed for keeping bones strong, helping muscles contract, and transmitting nerve impulses. Vitamin D is a vitamin needed for absorbing calcium, keeping the immune system strong, and helping muscles and nerves work well. While cow’s milk does provide important nutrients, not everyone can or wants to drink it. Non-dairy milk such as soy milk, almond milk, or rice milk can help your body get the nutrients it needs.
People have many reasons for choosing non-dairy milk over cow’s milk. Some people are vegan and avoid all animal products; some have a milk protein allergy; some are concerned about the environment or ethical farming practices; and some people just prefer the taste. Whatever the reasons may be, many kinds of non-dairy milk are out there. With so many options, it’s important to know the differences between these milks, as they can vary widely between calories, protein, and important vitamins and minerals.
First, let’s look at the nutrition of cow’s milk. One cup of 1 percent milk contains 110 calories, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, and 8 grams of protein. Cow’s milk naturally contains calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, riboflavin (vitamin B2), selenium, and zinc. Some vitamin A is also present. In the United States, cow’s milk is generally fortified with vitamins A and D. The process of fortifying adds nutrients that the item does not already have or may be low in. Depending on what part of the world you live in, foods may be fortified with different vitamins or minerals to help reduce dietary deficiencies in the population. Unfortified cow’s milk does not have any vitamin D, which many Americans are deficient in.
For those who are lactose intolerant and enjoy cow’s milk, Lactaid may be a good choice. Lactaid is real cow’s milk, but it also contains lactase. Lactase is the enzyme needed to break down lactose. Lactose breaks down into simple sugars, so this milk tastes sweeter than regular cow’s milk. A person who is lactose intolerant can drink Lactaid, other lactose-free milks, or non-dairy milks, while a person with a milk protein allergy will need to stick to non-dairy milks.
Soy milk is a popular non-dairy milk. It is made from soybeans, filtered water, and may also contain thickeners to improve consistency. One cup of Silk Original Soymilk contains 110 calories, 0.5 grams of saturated fat, 5 grams of added sugars, and 8 grams of protein. Like cow’s milk, this soy milk is fortified with vitamin A and D, but it also has added calcium, vitamins B2 and B12, gellan gum, and cane sugar. For those who are vegan, soy milk may be a good choice, as it has as much protein as cow’s milk and is an excellent source of vitamin B12.
Almond milk is another popular choice. This milk is made from ground almonds and filtered water. One cup of Silk Unsweetened Almondmilk contains just 30 calories, 0 grams of saturated fat, and 1 gram of protein. It is fortified with calcium, vitamin E, vitamin A, and vitamin D. This drink also has two thickening agents. Other brands of almond milk may be fortified with vitamin B12. Unlike cow’s milk or soy milk, almond milk is low in protein, so it won’t help you reach your protein needs. Unsweetened almond milk can make a good low-calorie substitution for coffee creamer or it can be used in smoothies.
Rice milk, or rice drink, is another non-dairy milk. This milk is dairy-free, nut-free, and soy-free, which is helpful for those with food allergies. Rice milk is made from milled rice and water. One cup of Rice Dream Enriched Unsweetened Rice Drink has 70 calories, 0 grams of saturated fat, and 0 grams of protein. It is fortified with vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. This drink has more ingredients then the others as it contains oils, starches, and thickening agents. Rice milk, especially the sweetened varieties, have more carbohydrates that other non-dairy milks and cow’s milk, so keep this in mind if you have diabetes. Like almond milk, rice milk is low in protein.
Other types of non-dairy milks include coconut milk, oat milk, and cashew milk. Silk unsweetened varieties of these milks are all less than 100 calories per cup and are fortified to be good or excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D. On the other hand, one cup of Silk Unsweetened Coconutmilk has 3 grams of saturated fat.
During your next trip to the grocery store, look at the nutrition facts labels on any milks you’re curious about trying. First, look at the serving size. For milk, it will usually be 1 cup, which may also be written as 8 fl. oz. or 240 ml. Then look at calories, saturated fat, any added sugars, and protein. A low-fat or fat-free milk will be lower in calories and saturated fat. Cow’s milk has 8 grams of protein in each cup, whether it is whole milk, 2% milk, 1 % milk, or fat-free milk. For vitamins and minerals, the “% Daily Value” column is a quick way to see if an item is high or low in something. If a vitamin or mineral is 20 percent or more of the daily value, this is considered an excellent source. If a vitamin or mineral is 10 to 20 percent of the daily value, it is still considered a good source.
If you choose to replace cow’s milk with a non-dairy milk, choose a milk that has protein, calcium, and vitamin D. If you are vegan, look for one that also is fortified with vitamin B12. Choose a milk that is unsweetened to avoid added sugar. Unfortunately, many non-dairy milks do not have the amount of protein that cow’s milk contains. Soy milk will likely have the most protein of non-dairy milks, but keep in mind that amounts of nutrients may vary between brands, even if it’s the same type of milk. Milk is just one of the many ways to get calcium and vitamin D in your diet. Along with milk, include lean meats, fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in your diet to give your body the nutrition it needs and help you feel your best.