Milk Alternatives: How Do They Stack Up?
The skinny on your milk’s nutritional merits
Got milk? For many consumers the answer is “no.” They’re choosing non-dairy alternatives because they can’t digest dairy, want to avoid it or prefer the taste of other options.
So how does your favorite stack up against dairy milk in terms of nutrition?
One thing's for sure: All milk alternatives are not created equal.
"It's confusing because there are so many products out there," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN, author of “Read It Before You Eat It.” "You really have to read labels, because otherwise there's no telling what's in them."
For the nutrition, taste and texture of cow's milk, "soy milk is the closest," says Susan Levin, MS, RD, director of nutrition education at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It has roughly the same amount of fat, protein, calcium and vitamin D, but fewer calories. Here’s how the numbers stack up:
|Calories||Total Fat (g)||Saturated Fat (g)||Protein (g)||Calcium (mg)||Vitamin D (IU)|
|2% milk (8 oz)||122||5||3||8||293||120|
|Unsweetened soy milk (8 oz)||80||4||1||7||301||119|
Soy milk even kicks in a gram of fiber. (Cow’s milk has none.) And like all plant-based milks, soy milk is cholesterol free.
Other popular options
Calorie conscious? Almond milk has only about 30-35 calories per cup. (Some brands have a bit more.) Many brands have about 25 percent of your vitamin D for the day — about the same as cow’s milk. But the calcium content varies widely from brand to brand, so check the label. Almond milk typically contains very little protein.
That's not a bad thing, says Levin. If you're eating a well-rounded diet, you're likely getting enough protein from other sources.
Coconut milk — the beverage, not the canned version used for cooking — has a surprising amount of saturated fat, says Levin. One 8-ounce glass packs 4 grams of saturated fat, or about 20 percent of what you should have in a day.
Levin says she prefers it for occasional baking, where it adds rich texture, rather than as an everyday sipper.
The scoop on sugar
Many dairy alternatives have added sugar, warns Taub-Dix. One brand's "original" hazelnut milk, for example, comes with 14 grams of added sugar per cup. That’s the equivalent of more than a tablespoon of granulated sugar.
Other choices serve up an even bigger sugar surprise, says Dina Cheney, author of the forthcoming book “The New Milks.” For example, unsweetened oat milk has 130 calories and 19 grams of (naturally occurring) sugars — even more than an 8-ounce glass of 2 percent milk. Unsweetened rice milk has a similar nutritional profile.
You can spot added sugar on the ingredient list. It's anything identified as a sugar, sweetener or syrup. And "organic cane juice"? That's added sugar, too. To avoid the extra sugar, opt for a product labeled "unsweetened."
Thickeners and stabilizers
No one wants to drink really watery milk. That’s why manufacturers often add thickeners ranging from oil and nut butters to additives like guar gum and xanthan gum.
Another thickener is carrageenan, derived from seaweed. It’s also a stabilizer. In drinks, for example, it keeps the ingredients from separating. Some manufacturers add it to everything from dairy alternatives to low-fat and fat-free dairy products (to help them taste more like full-fat products).
Some animal and lab studies have linked carrageenan with inflammation, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance (both of which can increase the risk of diabetes), and gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach upset, ulcers and bleeding.
"The research with carrageenan on human health is inconclusive," says Levin. If you're prone to digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, you may want to avoid it, she says.