Milk is no longer milk. My local mega-mart grocery store has an enormous milk case that is half full with non dairy, and mainly non-animal milks. And that is not counting a full quarter of the “natural” foods aisle stocked with tetra-packed varieties. If it a food could conceivable turn into a white-ish liquid that is semi-palatable, someone has turned it into a milk.
For argument’s sake, let’s say you’re choosing alternatives to dairy (I’ll get into why you may or may not want to do that in another post), what are the differences in the myriad options available? Many serve at least some of the same purposes as cow’s milk, but it is important to know the features that distinguish them, both nutritionally and in taste.
In order to do a true comparison, we need to outline our measurement parameters. Per 1 cup (250 ml) portion, cow’s milk provides 8g protein, ~300 mg calcium, 100 IU vitamin D, and 100-130 kcal. There are plenty of other nutrients in there as well, but these are the factors most discussed in health circles and saught-after by consumers. I would like to note that no milk, including cow’s milk, is a natural source of vitamin D; this is a fortification regulation that applies to all cow’s milk sold commercially. Fresh-from-the-cow milk will have very little vitamin D.
The first alternative to cow’s milk is goat milk, a popular substitute a couple decades ago but less so now. Nutritionally it is pretty much equivalent to cow’s milk, except that is typically higher in fat, and therefore, calories. Not all goat milks will be vitamin D-enriched, so it is buyer beware. This is not a suitable option for someone with lactose intolerance or a cow’s milk allergy as goat’s milk still contains lactose (though less than cow’s milk) and many people with allergies still react to goat’s milk.
Moving on to plant milks. Plant milks are made by soaking the grain/seed/nut in water, grinding the material, filtering out the solid parts and fibres, and some combination of heat-treatment and enzymatic treatment to ensure palatability, safety, and a shelf-stable product. Plant milks are not required to be fortified with calcium, vitamin D, or other nutrients. If a manufacturer chooses to do so, they must fortify to the levels found in dairy milk (~300 mg calcium and 100 IU vitamin D).
The most well-known variety or plant milk is soy milk; it was around way before not drinking dairy became popular. Per 250 ml, it contains 6-8g protein, 90-110 kcal, ~300-330 mg calcium, and ~100 IU vitamin D. However, this is only for fortified versions. So for soy, as with all plant milks, you have to choose wisely to ensure you are not missing out on nutrition. Soy milk is considered a true alternative to milk mainly because of the protein and calorie content. It does have a slightly beany taste, and that depends on the brand.
Next are nut milks, the darling of the non-dairy crowd, the most popular of which is almond (though cashew and coconut are the up and comers). Calories range from 30-100 per 250 ml depending on flavour and how much sugar was added. If fortified, it is comparable to dairy; some brands even add additional calcium to entice consumers concerned with their bone health. The biggest difference is that it contains 0-1g protein per 250 ml. Taste-wise, it is slightly nutty and (personally) slightly more pleasant than the bean taste provided by soy. It also goes very well in coffee and as the base for lattes. A note on coconut milk: while canned coconut has been around for years, making thai curries the delectable dishes they are, the coconut milks in the carton are not the same. Canned coconut milk is thick and mostly fat, and not fortified at all. Carton coconut milk is thinner and more like the other nut milks.
There are also rice, oat, hemp, and flax milks. Per 250 ml, the protein ranges from 1-3g depending on the product. These will each taste vaguely like their originating grain.
Most unsweetened plant milks are significantly lower in carbohydrates and sugars than cow’s milk. However, many people will find unsweetened versions less than appealing as a beverage. Choosing the original or any flavoured version will increase the sugar to approximately that of dairy milk.
So when you’re standing in front of the non-dairy case, take a few issues to heart. Think about how much milk you usually drink. If it is two cups a day or more, switching to anything other than soy will significantly reduce your overall protein intake. Of course, this needs to be in context of your overall diet, but it is a factor not to be overlooked. Make sure to read the labels carefully to ensure your product of choice is fortified. If you prefer an unfortified product, make sure you are making up for in other areas of your diet. After you’ve chosen thoughtfully, enjoy your beverage.