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Published on March 01, 2019

Is it milk, if it comes from almonds?Is it milk, if it comes from almonds?

Go to the dairy case in your supermarket, and you’ll confront a myriad of options, many of which aren’t dairy products at all, but beverages made from nuts, seeds and grains. These beverages have grown in popularity, as consumers have moved away from cow’s milk.

“Non-dairy beverages can be a good alternative for people who have allergies or intolerances to dairy products,” said Courtney Shea, clinical nutrition manager for Cape Cod Healthcare.

Milk Comparison Chart

Click Image for Full Size [PDF]

Almond, soy, coconut, rice, cashew and other plant “milks” have become enormously popular in recent years. According to market intelligence agency Mintel, non-dairy milk sales have grown 61 percent from 2012-2017, with almond garnering 64 percent of market share, soy at 13 percent and coconut at 12 percent.

Mintel found 90 percent of people who buy non-dairy milks also buy cow’s milk, and that consumers perceive whole milk, low-fat milk and almond milk as the healthiest choices. However, 19 percent of consumers also say they’ve cut back on dairy for health reasons.

Non-dairy milks, derived from vegetable products, contain no cholesterol, a substance that can clog artery walls, or lactose (milk sugar), which can bother some folks’ digestion. But most are low in protein and may lack other nutrients found in cow’s milk.

“One of the primary benefits of dairy products is the protein content. Both cow’s milk and soy milk have 8 grams of protein in an 8-ounce glass, where almond, coconut and rice milk only have 1 gram in the same serving size,” Shea said.

The Calcium Question

A chart from the National Dairy Council comparing low-fat cow’s milk with Silk brand soy, almond and coconut milks and Rice Dream’s rice milk shows only cow’s milk contains naturally occurring calcium, 30 percent of the recommended daily allowance per serving. However, the non-dairy products contain 30-45 percent of the RDA, via added calcium. Both the dairy and non-dairy milks on the chart have vitamins A and D added to them, but formulations for specific nutrients differ by brand and product.

“Most of these products discussed can help with bone health as they have calcium and Vitamin D added to them. It is important to read the nutrient label for these ingredients when purchasing milk alternatives,” she said.

The political competition between dairy and non-dairy milk producers became public in late July, when Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb questioned if non-dairy beverages should be labeled as “milk,” and began a process of public comment and review of the agency’s standard for the term, including whether marketing non-dairy products as milk confuses consumers.

In a statement issued July 26, he raised the issue of public health, citing reports of kwashiorkor, severe malnutrition caused by low protein, in young children fed rice-based products, and rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that deforms bones, in a toddler fed soy products.

“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as ‘‘milk,’’ we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk,” wrote Gottlieb.

Shea said pediatricians and dietitians recommend that once a child is 1 year old, if they are no longer breastfeeding and there are no allergies, children should be drinking at least two servings per day of cow’s milk.

“With all the milk alternatives available these days and their prominence in the media, it is important for these healthcare providers to explain the difference between dairy and non-dairy products,” she said.

Sugar Content

In addition to nutrients, chocolate, vanilla and other flavors added to cow’s milk and non-dairy products often comes with added sugar. According to the New England Dairy and Food Council, an 8-ounce serving of low-fat milk contains 12.2 grams of carbohydrates, most of which are in the form of naturally occurring lactose. Added sugar boosts the carbs in low-fat chocolate milk to 30.3 grams per serving.

According to Silk.com, Silk Original Almondmilk contains 8 grams of carbohydrates, of which 7 are sugar. Silk Vanilla Almondmilk has 14 grams of carbohydrates, of which 13 are sugar. And Silk Dark Chocolate Almondmilk contains 19 grams of carbohydrates, of which 17 are sugar. But there are no carbohydrates, including sugar, in Silk’s Unsweetened Almond Coconut Blend.

The lesson: Know what you need or want to get or avoid in a dairy or non-dairy milk product, then find the product that matches.

“The most important thing when purchasing anything, is to educate yourself. The ingredient list and nutrition facts label on any package is the best place to get your information about the products you are buying,” said Shea.