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Plant-Based Milk: Nutrition Facts

Cow’s milk has been long touted as a staple to a healthy, balanced diet. The beverage is naturally loaded with many of the nutrients our bodies need. It’s high in protein, which helps our bodies stay healthy and function properly, and it contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals to support bone development and muscle function.

Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy dairy milk. About 68% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, while others may have a milk allergy. And some just don’t like milk.

The good news is there are good alternatives—and clear differences—with plant-based milk products. The Food and Drug Administration provided guidance to help people better understand the nutritional difference between dairy and plant-based milks.

Here, we clear up the confusion.

Soy milk

Made from soybeans, this plant-based option is second best to dairy milk.

“This can cover our nutrient needs in a way that’s comparable or nutritionally equivalent to milk,” says Vanessa Browning, a clinical dietitian at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at University of Utah Health.

While it doesn’t naturally come with calcium or vitamin D like cow’s milk, soy milk is fortified with these nutrients. Soy milk is also high in protein like cow’s milk. A single eight-ounce glass of cow’s milk contains about eight grams of protein, while a glass of soy milk can contain upwards of 10 grams.

“If you can’t have milk, soy milk will give you a really close profile to cow’s milk. You’ll get the main ingredients needed that help contribute to bone density and bone mineralization, which is one of the main reasons for drinking milk.”
Vanessa Browning, RDN

Almond or nut-based milk

Almond or nut-based milk can be a good alternative for those who may have a soy allergy. These milks are packed with vitamin E. However, they are lower in protein—only about one gram.

Nut-based milks don’t naturally come with calcium or vitamin D, either. Browning advises to read the nutrition label before you buy it.

“Don’t always assume the product is fortified,” she says. “While companies are trying to make milk alternatives equivalent to cow’s milk, they don’t have to.”

Oat milk

Oat milk can be a good option for those who have soy or nut allergies. It naturally contains many nutrients our bodies need such as zinc, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin B, and potassium. However, it is missing calcium and vitamin D, so make sure the one you choose is fortified with these nutrients.

While it contains more protein than almond or a nut-based milk, oat milk is still much lower than cow’s milk and soy milk—about three grams per eight-ounce glass.

Other alternatives

The list of milk alternatives goes on. While not as common as dairy, soy, and almond milk, there are other options such as pea milk, rice milk, and coconut milk. If using these products as a dairy alternative, make sure they are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

  • Rice milk is very low on the allergy list but high in carbohydrates.
  • Coconut milk is very low in protein—less than one gram—and high in saturated fat. However, it’s a low-carb alternative that can be gentler on blood sugar levels.
  • Pea milk, made from yellow peas, is a high-protein alternative—about eight grams per an eight-ounce glass.

Tips for Choosing Milk

Strolling through the dairy aisle can be quite overwhelming these days with many choices. If you’re looking for a dairy alternative to cow’s milk, here’s some nutritional guidance.

  1. Read the nutrition facts. This is especially important for those who are looking for a dairy alternative. Look at what nutrients are being added.
  2. Look for calcium and vitamin D. Many of these milk alternatives do not naturally contain these important nutrients. Make sure the product is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  3. Get a protein boost. Dairy milk, soy milk, and pea milk are the best options. Check out the nutrition label to see how much protein is included.
  4. Stay away from added sugar. Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry options may look enticing, but take a look at the nutrition label. Many of these products add sugar to help the flavor. While some may have naturally occurring sugars, you’ll want to pay special attention to the added sugar section.