Big picture: Milk knock-offs are plant-based, man-made beverages that mimic the nutrients in milk.
Pros: Milk alternatives have zero cholesterol (only animals can make cholesterol), low levels of artery-clogging saturated fat (choosing low-fat dairy accomplishes this also) and convenient packaging that is recyclable.
Cons: Sugar content is high and protein levels are low (except soy milk).
Protein: Milk alternatives are low in protein. It is the main reason the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants and children be offered milk instead of milk alternatives unless there is a medical reason to do so. Lactose intolerance, a milk protein allergy and being vegan are good reasons to use soymilk. It is a close match to 2 percent cow’s milk but the fat is heart healthy. Most soybeans grown today are genetically modified, so look for organic products labeled non-GMO.
Calcium and vitamin D: Milk alternatives are fortified to match cow’s milk nutrient content, but the type of nutrient used to fortify is key. Calcium carbonate, which is readily available to your body, is commonly used. But tricalcium phosphate used in some products is very poorly absorbed. Most of these additives have not been scientifically tested for absorption in this man-made food.
On the other hand, the lactose in milk (listed as a sugar on the label) along with the casein (milk protein) and the fortification with vitamin D make the calcium well absorbed in milk, just the way Mother Nature made it.
Fortifying all milks with vitamin D is recommended and many will contain 30 percent of the daily requirement (300 of 1000 mg daily), which means you can meet your calcium need in 24 ounces in 24 hours. Milk alternatives usually are not filling so drinking too much is possible; keep track in children to avoid too much calcium.
Sugar benchmark: Sugar content is high in flavored milks. Keeping in line with 12 grams of lactose (the amount of natural sugar in one cup) in milk is a good guideline. Rice milk is naturally high in carbohydrates and arsenic, so it’s best to limit it.
Reading ingredients helps you see what the food is made of. Nutrient facts often make the food look better by numbers. A comparison chart of milk alternatives is available at
www.todaysdietitian.com/pdf/webinars/PlantBasedDairyAlternativesGuide.pdf. Make your comparisons, shop wisely and drink up.
Eat as well as you can as often as you can.