Milk Matters

No doubt you’ve noticed the growing number of milk-like products that have appeared in the dairy case (or in close proximity to it). The colorful containers and variety of flavors available make for an attractive, yet somewhat confusing display. Whether the source of these beverages is a nut (cashew, almond, macadamia, hazelnut), a grain (oat, rice, hemp), a seed (flax), a fruit (coconut, banana), a tuber (tigernut) or a legume (soybean, pea), plant-based beverages offer a variety of nutrients. Sales of these beverages are increasing each year, but they aren’t really milks, are they?

Photo by Felipe López Ruiz from Pexels

What makes it milk?

There are standards of identity (legal definitions and specifications) for some food products, and one of those is milk. Basically, milk, as defined by the government, is a substance that comes from a lactating animal. However, colloquial and historical use of the word “milk” has also long referred to the liquid obtained from grinding and pressing nuts as “milk.”  Is anyone confused by this? Perhaps. The FDA has collected comments on this issue and is looking into the state of consumer confusion about it in hope that a decision can be made about whether labeling nut milks and other plant-based, milk-like beverages is misleading. Frankly, I doubt that many people are actually confused about whether plant-based milks are a dairy product (of course, they are not). Perhaps the bigger issue revolves more around how plant-based, milks-like beverages compare to dairy milk—and what your goals are for including them in your diet.

Nutritional Differences

There are a number of nutritional differences between cow’s milk and plant-based beverages—and with the increasing variety of alternative milks, it can be hard to keep track of which milks offer what nutritionally. So, getting in the habit of reading the Nutrition Facts labels of plant-based milks is a smart idea. The areas where alternative milks differ from cow’s milk generally include:

  • Fat content
  • Protein content
  • Sugar content

While cow’s milk is available in varying fat levels, plant-based milks are usually very low in fat, and all are cholesterol free since they are plant-based. Most plant-based beverages don’t come close to containing the amount of protein that cow’s milk does (with the exception of soy and pea beverages). And as for sugar, be aware that the “original” versions of many plant drinks contain added sugar. Unflavored cow’s milk has no added sugar (although it does have natural sugars). In addition, a recent scientific review and comparison of cow’s milk and plant-based beverages found that a number of  nutrients may be lacking in plant-based beverages, namely calcium, zinc, iodine, certain amino acids and vitamins B2, B12, A, and D. While brands vary, this is a nice summary of nutritional pros and cons of alternative milks.

For Parents of Young Children

A growing number of parents are expressing interest in transitioning their babies to plant-based beverages instead of cow’s milk at the usual 1-year schedule. Since plant-based drinks are not equivalent to cow’s milk, parents should consult with their pediatrician about what the best choices may be for their child’s needs. Among the many nutrients that young children need, a few of them: vitamin D, iodine and protein—as well as a good amount of fat—are especially needed at this stage of life. Transitioning from breast milk to a soy-based formula and continuing with that until a child is 2 years old (and adding in solid foods according to a normal feeding schedule starting at 4-6 months) might be what the pediatrician suggests for families who don’t want to transition to cow’s milk.