Milk Alternatives

Hailey Jenson

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April 15, 2021
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Milk is a staple in many people’s diets. However, with an increased interest in vegan diets, allergy awareness, and sustainability, milk alternatives have gained a lot of attention. This post breaks down the who, what, how and where of milk alternatives.

A cup of coffee on a table

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What are milk alternatives?

Milk alternatives are simply liquids used as a substitute for dairy milk—think plant-based milk. These commonly include nut milks, seed milks, or other milks like pea, rice, or oat milk. They’re made from a combination of water, the plant source (nuts, seeds, grain, or pea), and optional flavor additives. There are several milk alternatives on the market today. When choosing a milk alternative it is important to evaluate the nutritional differences between traditional cow’s milk and the milk alternative. The chart below compares soy, almond, coconut, oat, rice and cow’s milk (2). 

TypeBrandProteinCarbsFatCalciumVitamin DCost (per quart)
Cow’s (2% Fat)HEB8g12g5g (Saturated Fat 3.0g)30%25%$1.32
SoySilk7g4g4g (Saturated Fat 0.5g)30% (Synthetic)25% (Synthetic)$2.04
AlmondBlue Diamond1g2g3.5g (Saturated Fat 0.0g)30% (Synthetic)25% (Synthetic)$2.00
CoconutSilk0g<1g4.0g (Saturated Fat 3.5g)45% (Synthetic)25% (Synthetic)$1.92
OatOatly3g16g1g (Saturated Fat 0.0g)25% (Synthetic)20% (Synthetic)$2.56
RiceRice Dream1g23g2.5g (Saturated Fat 0.0g)30% (Synthetic)25% (Synthetic)$1.92

Who should consider milk alternatives? 

Milk alternatives can be a great option for anyone who wants to try it but are particularly helpful for individuals who are lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy, or are vegan. 

Lactose intolerant individuals cannot properly digest lactose leading to symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain (1). Plant-based milks are ideal alternatives as they are naturally lactose free.  

An allergy to milk causes an immune reaction to the proteins in milk. Symptoms can vary, but can include hives, itching, vomiting, swelling, or in severe cases anaphylaxis (1). Avoidance of milk and products containing milk is required. 

Those on a vegan diet do not consume animal products such as dairy, eggs, or meat. Plant-based milk is, as the name suggests, made from plants making it an appropriate alternative to milk for individuals following a vegan lifestyle. 

How to choose? 

When choosing a milk alternative an individual must consider a few questions: 

  • What role is the milk alternative playing in the diet? If the milk alternative is serving as the main protein source at a meal, then soy would be the most appropriate option. However, if a splash of the milk alternative is being added to coffee or cereal most options would suffice given the limited quantity consumed.
  • Is there added sugar or other additives? It’s best to choose an unsweetened plant-based milk to limit sugar intake. In addition, presence of additives like thickening agents should be noted for consideration. 
  • What is the budget? Plant-based milk can get expensive. If budget is a concern, then rice or coconut milk may be the best options. Comparing brands and utilizing coupons can help save money as well. In addition, an individual could consider making the plant-based milk from scratch. 
  • Are there any allergens? Tree nuts and soy are among the Top 8 food allergens in the U.S (1). If these allergies are a concern then a seed, grain, or pea based milk should be chosen. 
  • What other sources of calcium or vitamin D does the individual have? Calcium and vitamin D are essential micronutrients. If cow’s milk is not an option, then an individual should consider a plant-based milk that is fortified with these nutrients. Alternatively, individuals can consume a diet abundant in calcium rich foods like figs, kale, collard greens, chia seeds, navy beans, and soybeans. Spending a little time in the sun will provide a Vitamin D boost. 

Where to buy? 

Plant-based milks can be found in most grocery stores, online grocers, health stores, and even dollar stores. In addition, plant-based milks can easily be made at home. Making plant-based milk from scratch is affordable, sustainable, and eliminates the use of potentially harmful additives. Just remember to compensate for the loss of calcium and vitamin D with other sources. 

The Takeaway

Plant-based milks can be an excellent alternative to milk especially for those with lactose intolerance, allergies, or vegan diets. Understanding the nutrient differences between plant-based milks and traditional cow’s milk is key to providing an adequate substitution. Essential nutrients like calcium, protein, and vitamin D must be included at comparable levels or will need to be provided from other sources. For a more affordable and even more sustainable option consider making plant-based milk at home. 

With the abundance of plant-based milk options, milk will continue to be a staple in many people’s diets. Just maybe not cow’s milk!

References:

Food Allergy Research & Education. (n.d.). Milk. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://www.foodallergy.org/living-food-allergies/food-allergy-essentials/common-allergens/milk

HEB. (2020). Milk Products. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://www.heb.com/search/?q=milk

Klemm, R. (2017). Calcium. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/types-of-vitamins-and-nutrients/calcium

Hailey Jenson

Hailey Jenson

Hi, my name is Hailey! I originally graduated from Texas A&M in 2016 with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing. After working a few years in corporate retail, I decided to make a career change. I loved how fast paced retail was but wanted a career that allowed me to directly help others on a daily basis. After personally seeing the impact nutrition has on an individual’s health, I decided to pursue a career as a dietitian. I am currently in my second semester of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at University of Houston. Ultimately, my goal is to work as a clinical dietitian.