What to Know About Non-Dairy Milks?


Kurt Olsen

Cow’s milk has been a standard item in refrigerators for a long time, but consumers are increasingly opting for dairy alternatives made from nuts and plants, such as almonds, oat, coconut, and soy.

In 2022, approximately 41% of U.S. households purchased plant-based milk alternatives, with a 76% repeat purchase rate, according to data from the National Consumer Panel.

People switch to these alternatives for various reasons, such as following a plant-based diet or due to dairy allergies in breastfeeding infants.

Health Matters interviewed Georgia Giannopoulos, a registered dietitian and the manager of NYPBeHealthy, NewYork-Presbyterian’s Health & Well-being program to gain insights into the effects of eliminating cow’s milk. She discussed the nutritional benefits of dairy and provided information for those considering cutting it from their diet.

What are the benefits of consuming dairy?

Georgia Giannopoulos explains that although milk alternatives are often promoted as healthier options, their nutritional value depends on the added ingredients and potential nutrient deficiencies. On the other hand, cow’s milk is a nutritious choice for many individuals, including children.

Dairy products are rich in essential nutrients like calcium and protein. They are typically fortified with vitamin D, which plays a vital role in bone and muscle health, among other functions. Suppose individuals choose to limit or avoid dairy. In that case, they must assess their overall diet and ensure they obtain sufficient calcium and protein from other food sources.

Does the fat content in dairy milk (2%, skim, whole) affect how healthy it is?

There is no universal answer to determine the best type of dairy milk as it varies depending on personal preferences and health goals.

Some individuals may opt for skim milk or low-fat 1% milk due to taste preferences or to reduce fat and calorie intake.

Others may find 2% milk or whole full-fat milk more satisfying, as fat is associated with feelings of satiety and plays a role in vitamin D absorption.

Why might someone want to cut out dairy?

People may choose to restrict or eliminate dairy from their diet for various reasons. These reasons may include lactose intolerance, following a vegan lifestyle, religious beliefs, or personal taste preferences.

If the goal of cutting out dairy is weight loss, seeking guidance from a registered dietitian or well-being coach can be beneficial in navigating this dietary change.

It’s important to note that many alternative milk options may have higher calorie content and added sugars than traditional dairy milk. These alternatives may not be fortified with essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, crucial for maintaining strong bones.

How much calcium do we need?

The recommended daily calcium intake can vary, but adults between the ages of 19 and 50 require around 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day.

For example, a cup of yogurt provides approximately 400 milligrams of calcium.

What are some excellent non-dairy sources of calcium?

Sardines and other fish that are canned with bones are excellent sources of calcium, protein, and healthy fats, making them suitable alternatives for those seeking non-dairy options.

A 3-ounce serving of sardines contains nearly the same amount of calcium as a cup of yogurt and other beneficial nutrients.

Additionally, calcium-fortified products such as orange juice and certain cereals are available in the market. It is advisable to check the Nutrition Facts label to determine the calcium content.

Dark green vegetables like broccoli, kale, and collard greens also contain calcium, making them another great option for obtaining this essential mineral.

What’s your take on alternative milk?

When selecting a milk alternative, whether soy, oat, or almond, reviewing the nutrition facts panel and ingredients is essential. Many varieties of milk alternatives contain added sugars. Opting for healthier options made with quality ingredients that taste good is crucial to ensure you consume them. Less healthy options often contain added sugars and artificial ingredients.

While almonds are a good source of protein, almond milk itself is not. A cup of almond milk typically contains only about 1 gram of protein, whereas regular milk has around 8 grams, and a handful of almonds provides about 6 grams. This is acceptable if an individual is obtaining sufficient protein from other sources.

Different non-dairy milks vary in protein content, so it’s advisable to compare nutrition facts if using them as a protein source.

Many favor oat milk’s rich texture, mainly when used with coffee. It can be an appealing option for those who need to avoid dairy and nuts. However, like almond milk, unsweetened oat milk contains minimal protein, approximately 1 gram per cup.

Unsweetened soy milk offers more protein than oat milk and is the closest nutritionally to dairy milk. It is also suitable for baking as it has a similar protein content to dairy milk. If there are concerns about soy, consulting with a healthcare provider is recommended.

While coconut milk beverage is generally low in calories (unlike pure coconut milk, which is high in calories), some packaged coconut milk beverages may contain additives that can cause digestive discomfort, including bloating. If you enjoy the taste of coconut milk beverage, consider making your own by blending unsweetened coconut milk or leche de coco with water to dilute it. This way, you can enjoy the flavor with fewer additives and at a lower cost.

What should someone look out for when choosing a milk alternative?

When selecting a milk alternative, it is essential to examine the nutrition facts label for three key factors: high protein content, low added sugars, and quality ingredients.

Soy milk is a suitable option as it contains a similar amount of protein as cow’s milk, providing 8 grams per cup serving.

On the contrary, almond milk has only 1 gram of protein per cup, despite almonds being rich in protein.

Reviewing the ingredients of the milk alternative you choose and prioritizing quality over quantity is advisable. One specific additive to be aware of is carrageenan, which manufacturers use to thicken processed foods and beverages like alternative milk, yogurt, and ice cream.

Carrageenan is commonly found in processed milk alternatives. While it is generally considered safe, some studies have linked it to inflammation and digestive discomfort, such as bloating. If you are sensitive to food additives like carrageenan, it is recommended to avoid them whenever possible.

What non-dairy products do you not recommend?

When you go shopping, it is essential to carefully review the ingredients listed on food labels, as added sugars can be hidden in various foods, including both dairy and non-dairy products.

Flavored almond, soy, and rice milk often contain high amounts of added sugar. Surprisingly, a cup of chocolate soy milk can have nearly the same sugar as a cup of soda.

To minimize sugar intake, it is recommended to choose unflavored options. Unsweetened soy milk is a nutritious choice that offers a good balance of energy and protein.

Ultimately, what’s your stance on the dairy versus non-dairy debate?

Maintaining a healthy diet, whether you include dairy or not, is entirely feasible. The key is to be aware of the composition of the food you consume and to embrace a diverse range of foods in moderation.

Consulting with a registered dietitian can be beneficial if you have concerns about meeting your calcium and protein requirements. They can assist in creating a personalized meal plan that aligns with your needs. Whether you consume dairy, milk alternatives, or neither, the objective remains: consistently nourishing your body with the necessary nutrients for optimal well-being.

Contact Us

For more information or to make comments and suggestions, please contact:
Kurt Olsen
Dairy Development Coordinator, Missouri Department of Agriculture
Phone: (573) 291-5704
E-mail: [email protected]