Milk Alternatives: How Do They Compare?

girl picking milk at grocery store

Every five years, a group of nationally recognized health and nutrition experts gather to research and publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines, intended for people older than 2 years of age, aim to ensure Americans are getting the nutrition they need. Dairy foods, like milk, yogurt, and cheese, are included within the Dietary Guidelines because they provide 9 essential nutrients, including three of the four nutrients of public health concern that research shows Americans are not getting enough of calcium, potassium, and vitamin D. You may be surprised to learn that, apart from fortified soy “milk,” plant-based milk alternatives, such as almond, coconut, rice, and oat are not included in the Dietary Guidelines.  

Let’s talk about why. Even though most plant-based milk alternatives have “milk” on their label, their nutrient content varies from cow’s milk and may not offer the same health benefits. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods per day as part of the Healthy U.S. Style Eating Pattern for people 9 years and older. Research shows that milk and other dairy foods contribute nutrients linked to improved bone health and reduced risk of some chronic diseases, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.  

Plant-based milk alternatives differ in other ways, too. Because of a standard of identity, cow’s milk always contains the same three ingredients: milk, vitamin A, and vitamin D. This is not the case for many of the plant-based alternatives. These alternative beverages can contain upwards of ten ingredients depending on the product you are buying. To make something taste and look like real milk, sugar, stabilizers, and synthetic vitamins and minerals often contribute to the longer ingredient list. 

Milk Alternatives

Another item to consider when buying your milk is the cost. Plant-based alternatives can sometimes be more than 1 1/2 times the cost for the same volume. Consider whether you are sacrificing other nutritious foods to afford a more expensive plant-based alternative milk.  

As a Registered Dietitian, I know there is a lot to think about when making food choices at the grocery store, including your milk choice. Is it healthy? Does it taste good? Can I afford it? Reaching for real cow’s milk on your next grocery store visit will provide your body with a  high-quality protein source, packed with nutrients you need for strong bones and healthy bodies at an affordable price. And it tastes great! 

Callie Yakubisin, RD 

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