Today, there are a lot of options available in the dairy case at the grocery store, and many people have lots of questions about milk substitutes. What are these popular non-dairy beverage choices, how are they made, and are they really adequate alternatives to cow’s milk?

Soy

Soy beverages are made from pressing soaked, cooked soybeans into a liquid similar in consistency to dairy milk. With slightly less protein than cow’s milk, soy beverage is often a preferred alternative to cow’s milk in a vegan lifestyle. It is commonly supplemented with calcium, vitamins A and D and occasionally with vitamin B12 and methionine (an essential amino acid) to more closely mimic the nutrient package of cow’s milk. Those who rely on soy beverage as a calcium source, must remember that soy is high in phytic acid, an acid that binds with calcium in the body and decreases absorption.

Almond

To produce almond beverages, processors blend almonds into water and strain the residue to create a smooth fluid. Almond beverages are often hailed as the “milk” lowest in saturated fat; however, fat-free cow’s milk and rice beverages contain no saturated fat either. Almond beverages are often supplemented with many vitamins and minerals; still, many marketed brands remain low in phosphorus, potassium and vitamin B12. Its low protein concentration appeals to consumers with soy allergies.

Coconut

Natural coconut milk, most commonly sold canned in the grocery store and used in Southeast Asian cooking, is a rich source of saturated fat, and contains about 500 calories per cup. The “dairy” version of coconut milk is produced by adding water to soaked coconut meat to reduce the calories. It is often supplemented with vitamins and minerals. In terms of fat, coconut milk is similar to reduced fat cow’s milk (2%), but contains much less protein.

Rice

Rice beverage is perhaps the most allergy-friendly alternative in the beverage aisle. With virtually no protein, rice beverages are often used by consumers over cold cereal, or as a sweet drink. It is made from brown rice, water and brown rice sweetener, and is commonly treated with barley enzymes that help break rice down into naturally occurring sugars. Its sweet flavor is also frequently enhanced by added flavorings. Additionally, some rice beverages are supplemented with vitamins and minerals that are not naturally found in rice. Although rice beverage is mostly allergen-free, consumers with celiac disease must be cognizant of barley enzymes commonly added to those available on the market.

Alternatives, yes. Substitutes, no.

Nutrients in cow's milk

Many of the non-dairy milk alternatives in the grocery store are touted as alternatives to milk, but are they really? It depends on your definition of alternative. If you are using “alternative” to suggest new options and choices, then yes, these products are alternatives.

In fact, healthy, balanced diets should include a variety of foods and beverages. However, when you eliminate three servings of cow’s milk, cheese and yogurt from your diet, it becomes more challenging to consume the essential nutrients you need during the day. Current Dietary Guidelines include three servings of dairy daily because scientific evidence shows that dairy products are safe and together, promote health benefits. Ensuring adequate nutrition and balancing the essential nutrients that a variety of foods provide is a critical aspect of being a healthy person.

Athletes who are looking to dairy beverages as a post-exercise recovery product must remember that carbohydrates and quality protein are behind the benefits of choosing cow’s milk. Research in adult athletes has shown that the high-quality protein profile of cow’s milk is well suited for recovery, containing both fast-acting protein for immediate recovery and slow-acting protein for long-term healing and muscle building.

Download our Milk: There is No Alternative handout here.

Categories: Lactose Intolerance, Milk Facts, Sports Nutrition and Milk