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Which Milk Substitutes Are Best?

What are the differences between all the non-dairy alternatives?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #092

What about Calcium and Vitamin D?

Cow’s milk is a major source of calcium and vitamin D and non-dairy milks are not naturally high in these nutrients. Some brands are fortified to make them comparable to cow’s milk as a source of calcium and vitamin D—but not all are Check the label to see exactly what you’re getting—especially if you’re counting on these foods to help you meet your requirements.

You’ll see the calcium listed in the nutrition facts label. You can also see what nutrients have been added by reading the ingredient list. Calcium is easy to recognize. Vitamin D might be listed as calciferol or cholicalciferol.  You can remember that these refer to vitamin D because they each contain “calci” as part of the name. That’s because vitamin D works with calcium to make strong bones.

Non-Dairy Milks Can Be High in Sugar and Sodium

But nutrients aren’t the only things that get added to non-dairy milks. Many, if not most, also contain added sugar, salt, and other things to improve the flavor. Sometimes, they improve the flavor so much that they actually turn it into a dessert. 

Even in the plain, unflavored milks that I compared, added sugars sometimes ranged as high as 20 g per serving. That’s more than a tablespoon of sugar in each cup. Sodium ranged from 25 to 180 mg per serving.  I suggest that you look for brands that keep the sugar to 12g or less and the sodium to no more than 100 mg per serving. That’s similar to the amount of natural sugar and sodium present in cow’s milk.

Which Milk Substitute Tastes Best?

The other big question is whether one tastes better than the other, and that appears to be very much a matter of personal preference. I did an informal poll on my Facebook page, asking which non-dairy milk people preferred. Each had its advocates but almond milk seemed the runaway favorite and oat seemed the least popular. Several people mentioned that they liked soy or hemp for their creaminess, which makes sense because they are both higher in fat.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Non-Dairy Milk

Some people seem to keep more than one type on hand for different uses. For example, one listener says she likes rice milk to drink but soy milk on her cereal. If you’ve got room in the fridge, using a couple different kinds of non-dairy milks might be a way to get the best of all worlds. Some soy milk on your cereal gives your breakfast a little extra protein. Hemp milk in your smoothie can add some omega-3 fats to your diet. Or, a glass of chilled almond milk might make a refreshing low-calorie snack. And there’s no reason that people who drink cow’s milk couldn’t do the same!

If you have a nutrition question for me, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. If tweeting is more your thing, I also have a handy little Twitter account. 

You can also search the archives using the search box at the top of the page. There’s a good chance I might have already answered your question in a previous article.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

Milk image from Shutterstock

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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