There are many non-dairy “milk” alternatives on the market today-- “milks” made from the processing of everything from soybeans to hemp seeds. But when it comes to popularity, almond “milk” is getting most of the attention. In fact, recent data estimates that almond makes up over 70% of the plant-based beverage category.
Although the plant-based beverage category holds less than 2% of the beverage market altogether, many consumers are left wondering, what’s the difference between all of these options? Comparing beverages side by side by their Nutrition Facts labels can be confusing. Here are a few thoughts on some common questions when comparing milk and imitation “milk.”
Where is the protein?
Dairy products are often touted nutritionally for their source of calcium. And while dairy products are calcium-powerhouses, the other essential nutrients they provide are important in the overall diet and are difficult to obtain without drinking or eating real dairy. Protein is one of those important nutrients. Most almond “milk” contains only 1-2 grams of protein compared to 8 grams of protein per each cup of cow’s milk. Plus, cow’s milk is a source of high-quality or complete protein, meaning it provides all of the essential building blocks to build and repair muscle, provide proper immune function, and support good health.
When comparing labels, “milk” alternatives often have equal amounts or even more calcium than cow’s milk, which is confusing to consumers. Calcium is added to "milk" alternatives, often in excess to ensure some absorbability. Naturally occurring calcium in cow’s milk is more absorbable than calcium found in a supplement or in foods that contain natural calcium binders. Almonds alone, for example, do not provide a rich source calcium, in fact, you would have to eat 5 servings (over 100 almonds) to absorb the same amount of natural calcium that is found in one cup of milk. Those looking for a clean label, or less processed food, are often surprised to see the nutrients in imitation “milk” come from added supplements and not the product itself.
“Milk” alternatives are often appreciated for their long shelf life, with consumers noting that “milk” alternatives can stay in their refrigerator for weeks without spoiling. And it’s true, a longer shelf life can be attributed to a longer ingredient list. With added stabilizers and salt, “milk” alternatives do not have the refrigeration demands that are necessary for fresh milk. But, we like it that way! Cow’s milk is a natural product without added water, stabilizers, and flavors, every glass, every time.
As seen here in quotations, “milk” alternatives are exactly that, an alternative. But when it comes to nutrition, they certainly aren’t a substitute. Whether its price, number and quality of nutrients or basic disease risk reduction, there are a lot of things that help cow’s milk stand out. Read more about the benefits of including cow’s milk dairy products in your diet at eatsmart.org.