Fork You / Practical Practice

Milk Alternatives: How Do They Compare to the Real Thing?


Earlier this week we dispelled some of the myths surrounding the healthfulness of cow’s milk. While we support milk as a healthy beverage, not everyone chooses or needs to drink fluid milk: lactose intolerance, veganism, allergies and personal preference are all appropriate reasons to choose healthy alternatives.

If many Canadians are foregoing milk in favour of other “alterna-milk” options, how do these options actually compare nutritionally?

Before we get to the scoop on some of the most common types of milk alternatives on the market, let’s first look at our benchmark: plain, old vitamin A and D fortified 1% milk:

Cow’s milk (1%) – per 1 cup serving

    • Cost: $0.50. Up to $0.71+ (organic, probiotic-added, omega-3s) and $0.74 (lactaid-treated).
    • Calories: 108
    • Protein: 8.7 g
    • Carbs: 12.9 g
    • Lactose: 11 g
    • Calcium: 322 mg
    • Vitamin D: 2.5 mcg

How does the same sized serving of a milk alternative compare with respect to milk’s key nutrients?


*
Goat
Soy
Almond
Rice
Hemp
Coconut
Oat
Cost ($)
0.78
0.84+
1.13
1.13
1.15
1.15
1.13
Calories
178
80
40
130
60
45
120
Protein (g)
9
7
1
0.4
2
0.4
3
Carbs (g)
12
4
2
26
1
1
17
Lactose (g)
9
0
0
0
0
0
0
Calcium (mg)
345
330
330
330
275
0
330
Vit. D (mcg)
2.5
2
0
2
0
0
2

*nutrient information from manufacturers and Canadian Nutrient File (2010) based on whole goat milk, unsweetened; soy beverage, unsweetened; almond beverage, unsweetened; rice beverage, original; hemp beverage, unsweetened; coconut milk beverage, unsweetened; oat beverage, original.

Like comparing apples and oranges! As you can see, milk alternatives often have very little in common with actual milk, particularly when they are not fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Calcium and vitamin D. Only goat’s milk has similar levels of calcium naturally, others have calcium added – usually as tricalcium phosphate or calcium carbonate – or like coconut milk beverage are not fortified at all. Surprisingly, the increasingly-popular almond, hemp and coconut milk beverages are NOT fortified with vitamin D.

Protein. Aside from slight differences in calcium and vitamin D content among fortified choices, protein is the biggest issue with milk alternatives. Of the dairy-free, vegetarian options, only soy milk contains a comparable amount of protein. Coconut milk beverage and rice beverage contain less than 1 g per serving!

Carbohydrates. Sugar and carbohydrate content are, as expected, much lower in the nut and seed-based alterna-milks and higher in the grain-based rice and oat beverages. All are lactose-free, aside from goat’s milk, which actually contains only slightly less lactose than cow’s milk and would not be a better choice for someone with lactose intolerance, despite some misinformation indicating it is.

We must again point out that all of the nutrient analyses above are based on “unsweetened” or “original” varieties of the plant-based milk alternatives. While they are definitely less palatable (see below!), sweetened and flavoured varieties can have A LOT of sugar added. For instance, original, vanilla and chocolate Almond Breeze® have an additional 6 g, 14 g and 20 g of carbs per serving, respectively, when compared to the unsweetened version – that’s all from sugar!

Other nutrients. Aside from the phytoestrogens provided in soy milk and some monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in almond and hemp beverages, there is not much in the way of naturally occurring nutrients or phytochemicals to recommend most of the alterna-milks. While there is some interesting new research regarding possible health benefits of coconut oil and coconut-derived products, an unfortified coconut milk beverage does NOT count as a milk alternative.

But how does it taste? The results of our taste test where not all positive but some came out as clear winners. It may seem like we stacked the deck by using “unsweetened” or “original” varieties, but we want a true reflection of taste unaltered by sugary additions.  Here’s what our tasters said:

  • Rice beverage was deemed the favourite alterna-milk because of it’s “sweeteness”. Most people said they would easily be able to drink a glass.
  • Goat milk tastes, well, “goat-cheesey” and would be an acquired taste for most. If you want to try goat milk, we suggest easing in with some goat yogurt – tastes great with fresh strawberries and a drizzle of honey!
  • While soy beverage was “too beany”, the familiarity of most tasters with the product gave it moderately favourable reviews – most thought they would be able to “choke down” half a cup without too much trouble!
  • Oat beverage was a surprising favourite, again because of a sweeter flavour. We had a hard time finding unsweetened oat beverage, so the one we sampled contains evaporated cane juice… so maybe not so surprising that it was popular!
  • Hemp, almond and coconut milk beverages where most often described as “watery” and “bland”. Hemp beverage was consistently our tasters’ least favourite – a few said it tasted “dirty” and like “chewing on fabric”!

No Baloney’s advice. Unless you have a soy allergy, our top lactose-free milk alternative is soy beverage, based on nutrition, taste and cost.

Coconut milk, almond and hemp beverages can be good choices to add to smoothies (helps keep the calories down), but we doubt many people would go for a large glass! Rice beverage is great for those with many allergies…but is protein-poor and super high on the glycemic index.

Surprisingly, oat beverage contained a decent amount of protein (3 g per serving), as well as added inulin and oat bran for 3 g of fibre per serving. The one caution with oat beverage, however, is that it may contain wheat contaminants and would not be appropriate for someone on a gluten-free diet.

Our biggest suggestion, regardless of which alterna-milk you choose is to buy something that has been fortified with both calcium AND vitamin D. Make sure to heed the package instructions and shake, shake, shake before you pour. Fortified nutrients, especially calcium, have a tendency to precipitate into a “sludge” that can settle and accumulate at the bottom of the container.

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One thought on “Milk Alternatives: How Do They Compare to the Real Thing?

  1. Pingback: “Junk Food, Without the Junk” is a load of J-U-N-K | No Baloney

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