The Vegetarian Resource Group Blog

Nutrition Blog-line: Milk Alternatives

Posted on August 31, 2009 by Nina Casalena, The VRG Blog Editor

As a parallel segment to Vegetarian Journal’s Nutrition Hotline feature, The VRG Blog will run a regular Nutrition Blog-line feature. In this installment Julia Driggers, Clinical Dietitian, answers a question about milk alternatives. If you would like to submit a nutrition question, you can email it to heatherg@vrg.org.

Question:

Hello Julia,

Of the milk alternatives, which do you think is best? I get soy protein from tofu and such, and I’m not sure how much soy I should be eating in a day. Plus, I’ve heard that most companies are adding a lot of sugar to their soymilks. I like almond milk a lot, but I don’t know much about it except that it’s made with water and very little almond. I’ve also heard that rice milk is pretty much just carbohydrates. Just trying to make an educated decision now that I have found all 3 of these kinds of milks in my grocery store. Thanks!
Erin

Answer:

Dear Erin,

Good question. It’s a great thing that we have a growing number of milk alternatives, but as a result it can be tough to know how to choose between them!

The most important factor that you should consider is the nutritional benefits that each offers, and how this complements the other elements of your daily diet.

Out of all the milk alternatives, fortified soy milk provides the most protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and omega-3s. Two cups of fortified soy milk a day will ensure that you are receiving a good amount of these essential vitamins and minerals for a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Unfortunately, almond milk and rice milk do not provide nearly as much protein as soy milk (soy milk: 7 gram protein/cup, almond milk: 1 gram protein/cup, rice milk: 0.42 grams protein/cup) nor do they have equivalent amounts of other vitamins and minerals. A comparative example:

Type and Brand of Milk Alternative % Daily Value of Vit. D/cup % Daily Value of Vit. B12/cup % Daily Value of Calcium/cup % Daily Value of Iron/cup
Silk Original Soy Milk 30% 50% 30% 6%
Rice Dream Original Milk 25% 25% 30% 4%
Almond Breeze Original Milk 25% 0% 20% 4%

You’ll want to consider the nutritional content of the other foods you are eating and supplements you are taking so that you can incorporate the appropriate amount of milk alternatives into your diet. If you only use a cup or so of soy milk a day, you will be obtaining about 30% of vitamin D and calcium, so be sure to get additional amounts of these and other nutrients from other food or supplement sources.

Most brands of alternative milks are sweetened with sugars. Regular soy milk typically has 6 grams of sugar/cup, original almond milk typically has 7 grams of sugar/cup, while rice milk typically has 10 grams of sugar/cup. Of course, to put this in perspective, 1 cup of cow’s milk has 12 grams of naturally occurring lactose sugar. If you are concerned about added sugar, make sure to watch out for some flavored milk alternatives like vanilla and chocolate products which tend to add additional sugar. Alternatives with lower sugars will likely be indicated with words like “plain,” “unsweetened,” and “no sugar added,” but you should read the labels as well.

If you drink a lot of milk alternatives daily, I would recommend switching it up: keep a couple of options on hand (easy because most of them are shelf stable!) and use soy milk in your cereal, for instance, but add almond milk to your coffee.

Wow, I’m thirsty. Now I’m in the mood for some vanilla soy milk! Or maybe even some chocolate almond iced cocoa…

Your body loves you.

Always,

Julia

P.S. Some additional links related to this topic that might be of interest:

http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2003issue3/vj2003issue3hotline.htm
http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2008issue1/vj2008issue1updateguide.htm
http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj98jan/981milk.htm

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