What to know about milk alternatives

University of Illinois Extension Services

Cow’s milk has traditionally dominated the dairy aisle, but recently alternative milks, such as almond, soy and oat milk, have been battling cow’s milk for more space. There’s a number of factors determining the increased popularity of non-dairy milk options, including veganism, lactose-intolerance, milk allergies and environmental concerns. But how do alternative milks compare to cow’s milk in terms of nutrition?

Cow’s milk continues to hold the number one spot in milk sales and for good reason. It’s naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins and is fortified with vitamins A (naturally present in whole milk) and D. It provides the vitamins and minerals that children 12 months and older need for optimal growth, and it’s an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D needed for post-menopausal women and adults still accruing peak bone mass (ages 19-30). Alternative milks may provide some of these key nutrients, but it’s not always the case. While some plant-based milks may be lower in calories, a plus for those looking to lose weight, many of these lack key nutrients found in cow’s milk.

Almond milk only has about half the calories as non-fat cow’s milk, but it also has just 1 gram of protein, 7 grams less than cow’s milk. One cup of oat milk has 3 grams of protein, but still 4 grams less than cow’s milk. Unsweetened soymilk, however, is much more comparable to cow’s milk and because of this, it’s the only plant-based milk that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend as a substitute for a serving of dairy for both children and adults.

Many alternative milks will fortify nutrients to be more consistent with cow’s milk, but keep in mind that not all brands and types are created equal. If choosing plant-based milk, compare labels and choose beverages that provide protein, calcium, vitamin D and no added sugars. While not as popular, pea milk and flaxseed milk have comparable protein content and when fortified, more closely mimic cow’s milk. They also are nut free, dairy free and soy free, making them a good choice for those with any of these allergies. Cow’s milk is still the preferred option for milk, but for those who can’t have it, or simply don’t care for the taste, alternative milks are a welcomed choice.