By Mabel Adams
These days there are so many options for milk at the grocery store. We’re all feeling the decision fatigue about whether to drink soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, or dairy milk. Let’s talk about it!
Looking at our diet as a whole, dairy is one of the 5 food groups. Adults should be consuming 3 cups per day of milk or other dairy products.1 This recommendation ensures that adults get enough vitamin D, potassium and more importantly, calcium. In fact, dairy products are the main source of calcium in our diets.1 However, there are many different reasons someone might choose a plant-based milk instead of the low fat cow’s milk that is recommended. Anytime you take specific foods out of the diet, it is important to find
the same nutrients from those foods in other sources. As we compare the plant-based milks below, we will look at how they stack up against cow’s milk on their protein per serving, calcium and vitamin D.
The USDA recommends fortified soy milk as a plant-based alternative. Soy milk is fortified when it has added calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D so that its nutrient profile better matches dairy milk.1 Soy milk is appropriate for those on a plant-based diet, those with lactose intolerance and those who avoid gluten. Always check the label for nutrition facts and ingredients as it can vary widely. On average, 1 cup of soy milk provides 8 grams of protein which is the same as cow’s milk. Soy milk is also lower in saturated fat than cow’s milk making it a good choice for someone who is trying to eat heart healthy.
Almond milk is made by blending almonds with water until they are liquid and draining it through a strainer to remove particles. It may be for you if you don’t want dairy or soy in your diet. Potentially, you could drink almond milk if you want to lower your calories. Almond milk has less than half the calories of cow’s milk and only 1 gram of carbohydrates compared to the 12 grams provided by dairy milk. Just like soy milk, almond milk can be fortified to have extra calcium and vitamin D in it. However, almond milk is not as nutritionally dense as cow’s milk. A 1 cup serving of almond milk provides only 2 grams of protein. The American Dietary Guidelines recommend that if you choose almond milk, you should look for other additional sources of calcium in your diet. This could be dark leafy greens like spinach, broccoli or bok choy. It could also be high protein sources like beans or tofu.
Oat milk is skyrocketing in popularity right now. Processing oat milk is done the same way as almond milk - blending it with water. Oat milk might be your preferred option on taste alone because it is creamier than the other two options previously mentioned. It also has a higher fat content so it is a better option if you are looking to steam it, froth it or use it for baking. Additionally, oat milk uses less water in its production than dairy milk, almond milk and soy milk making it the preferred milk of environmentalists.3,4 Oat Milk has 2 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein and can be fortified with vitamin D and vitamin A, just like the others. It does not need to be fortified with calcium, as oats already provide 23% of the recommended daily value of calcium on its own!
Ultimately, it comes down to taste, preference, and price point when choosing an alternative milk for you. Be sure to consider what you want to do with the milk - pour it in your coffee, use it in your morning cereal, or serve it with dinner every night. Thinking through these things and the nutrition content of the milk will help to decide what is the best milk for you!
My Plate, United States Department of Agriculture https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/dairy
Nutrition Database, United States Department of Agriculture https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/?query=oat%20milk
Haas R, Schnepps A, Pichler A, Meixner O. Cow Milk versus Plant-Based Milk Substitutes: A Comparison of Product Image and Motivational Structure of Consumption. Sustainability. 2019; 11(18):5046. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11185046
M. M. Mekonnen, A.y. Hoekstra. Water footprints of crops and crop derivatives. December 2010 https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report47-WaterFootprintCrops-Vol2.pdf