January 23, 2019

What you need to know about dairy-free milk

By Farhana Uddin

How now, brown… soybean? With so many dairy-free milk alternatives on the market, you’re not short on options. But which one is the most nutritious?

Back in the day, if you were buying milk, you had just a few choices, based on the fat content you wanted: whole milk, 2% or skim. You could also buy cartons of chocolate milk, and canned evaporated or sweetened condensed milk. But whatever the format, all the milk in the supermarket came from cows. In some specialty stores, you might be able to get goat’s milk, but that was about as exotic as it got. Today, however, milk doesn’t just mean cow’s milk any more.

Nowadays, our grocery aisles are packed with a flock of non-dairy milks made from nuts, legumes, seeds and grains. Soy milk, almond milk, cashew milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, oat milk, rice milk … there’s no shortage of substitutes. Many people maybe allergic or lactose-intolerant. They may have gone vegan for ethical reasons. Or they may just feel healthier without dairy. Whatever the reason, Canadian consumers have begun to embrace plant-based “mylks” (as some spell it) . But with so many options available, how do you know which type of plant-based milk is right for you? And do all these milk alternatives fully replace the nutrients in cow’s milk?

If you’re planning to take the dairy-free route with your milk, here are some key factors to consider:

1. How does dairy-free milk compare to cow’s milk?

Are all dairy-free alternatives equal to cow’s milk when it comes to nutrition? “It’s not unusual for Canadians to fall short in calcium, vitamin D or vitamin A – depending on the overall quality and balance of their diet – and cow’s milk offers value because it contains all of these essential nutrients,” says Andy De Santis, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. “However, the growing market of fortified dairy-free milk products means that these important nutrients are now available from a wide variety of milk alternatives.”

But the main nutrient that some alternatives lack is protein, De Santis adds. A study from McGill University examined the nutritional value of four common, unsweetened dairy-free milks (soy, almond, rice and coconut) in comparison to cow’s milk. The results: While all four milk alternatives were lower in fat and calories and had high levels of calcium, most of them were significantly low in protein. The only plant milk with a nutritional scorecard similar to cow’s milk was soy milk. A 250-mL serving of soy milk contains the same amount of protein (8 grams) as and roughly 13% more calcium than 250 mL of cow’s milk.

Milk comparison table

Milk Calories Fats Calcium Protein
Cow's milk 158 9.05 g 294.2 mg 8.11 g
Soy milk 95 4.5 g 330 mg 8 g
Almond milk 35 2.5 g 330 mg 1 g
Coconut milk 45 4.25 g 220 mg 0 g
Rice milk 130 2.5 g 315 mg 1 g

Apart from protein, most store-bought plant milks are fortified with the same vitamins and minerals that you would find in dairy milk. “So the main question to ask, aside from how much you enjoy a milk product, is whether or not you need the extra protein,” says De Santis.

2. Does your plant-based milk have enough protein for you?

Most people associate eating protein with satiation, finding that it can help them feel full and keep them from getting hungry again too quickly. But protein is also an essential nutrient our bodies use to build and repair tissues and make enzymes and hormones. And it can be found across all food groups, not just animal-based foods. Canada’s new Food Guide even encourages people to get more protein into their diet through plant-based foods.

“Protein is found in a wide variety of foods like poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, veggies, tofu, nuts and seeds,” De Santis explains. “If these foods are regular components of your diet, you probably won’t miss that bit of protein you’d get from cow’s milk or soy milk.”

However, if you rely on multiple cups of milk a day to satisfy both your hunger and your daily protein requirement, then De Santis suggests going for soy. “I personally like to recommend soy milk to people who are looking for a dairy-free alternative because the high-protein count helps with satiation,” says De Santis.  

Soy also has a cholesterol-lowering effect and may be protective against some cancers, but De Santis points out that this is an area of ongoing research.

3. Is your plant-based milk fortified with nutrients?

Want to reap nutritional benefits from any given plant-based milk? Then you need to check if it’s fortified. Fortification is the process of adding micronutrients to food and beverages. Health Canada requires that vitamin D be added to all kinds of fluid cow’s milk (as a way to prevent deficiencies, especially in the winter), vitamin A to 2% and skim milk (to replace the vitamin A in the missing fat), and vitamin C to evaporated milk (to replace the vitamin C destroyed by the heating process). There is also plenty of naturally occurring calcium in cow’s milk. That’s not always the case for dairy-free milk.

“When purchasing a milk alternative, read the nutritional information and keep an eye out for the term ‘fortified’ in the food label or packaging,” De Santis advises. “Fortified milks usually contain 45% of the recommended daily value of vitamin D and 30% of the recommended daily value of calcium per serving.”

Along with these essential nutrients, some dairy-free milk products are also fortified with vitamin B12, which helps keep the body's nerve and blood cells healthy. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products like dairy, meat and eggs, but it can be difficult to come by in a plant-based diet. This is why fortified dairy-free milks could be a great option for those wanting to up their B12 intake and avoid deficiency.

“There’s nothing wrong with having an unfortified milk product – like canned coconut milk – for a recipe or enjoyment,” De Santis adds. “But it’s important to understand you aren’t getting the essential nutrients that other fortified milk alternatives will offer.”

The same goes for any dairy-free, unfortified milk you make at home. For instance, making your own oat milk just means blending together half a cup of soaked oats with three cups of water. It’s easy enough to make and enjoy, so long as you don’t expect nutritional benefits on par with dairy milk from it. “If someone chooses to make their own dairy-free milk and is well aware that it won’t provide certain vitamins and minerals, then that’s fine, so long as they get those nutrients from other foods,” says De Santis.

4. Are there any ingredients in dairy-free milk alternatives you should avoid?

Do you tend to avoid products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? “While there’s no clinical evidence that GMOs are harmful to human health, sometimes the personal preference persists,” says De Santis. “The simplest way to avoid them is to purchase an organic variety of any given milk alternative, which will usually be GMO-free.” Look for a no-GMO label on the package to be sure.

What about the presence of carrageenan in dairy-free milk? “Carrageenan is a thickening agent derived from seaweed that may be present in some products,” De Santis says. “Some people don’t digest it well, and therefore prefer to avoid it.”

De Santis further adds that many companies are aware of these concerns, which is why some popular dairy-free milk products are both GMO- and carrageenan-free. Again, read the label to be sure.

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