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Vegetarian Journal Jan/Feb 2001

Guide to Non-Dairy "Milks"

Click here to see a more recent article printed in Vegetarian Journal 2008 Issue 1,
"An Updated Guide to Soy, Rice, Nut, and Other Non-Dairy Milks"

by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

Click here to see the milk alternative tables, updated in 2013

Up until a few years ago, every time I visited my parents, I packed a suitcase full of aseptic boxes of fortified soymilk. That was a lot easier than driving many miles to the only store around that sometimes stocked soymilk. Things have changed! Now, almost everywhere my family travels, we've found soy-milk in the supermarket. We're even noticing soymilks in the dairy case right alongside cow's milk. Soymilk also comes in aseptic containers and in powdered form. You can also try rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, milk based on potato starch, and multi-grain milk.

A typical 8-ounce glass of unflavored soymilk has 70-140 calories, and low- or nonfat varieties have even fewer calories than those with no reduction in fat. Flavored soymilks usually have added sweeteners and can have as many as 210 calories in 8 ounces. The range of calories for rice milk is similar to that of soymilk. Oat and multi-grain milks are slightly higher in calories (110-150 calories per serving), while almond milks are slightly lower (60-120 calories per serving).

Many beverages are lower in protein than cow's milk. This is not worrisome for those vegetarians whose diets contain other good protein sources. For those vegetarians who rely on plant-based milk for a significant portion of their daily protein needs, or for those vegetarians who need some extra protein (growing children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and some athletes, for example), beverages that are higher in protein can be chosen. These include EdenSoy Extra original, EdenSoy original, Eden Blend, Geni-Soy, Pacific Ultra Soy, Silk plain, So Nice Soyganic, Soy Dream, Sunrise, Vita Soy unenriched and refrigerated varieties, West Soy Lunch Box Plus, West Soy Organic original, and West Soy unsweetened. These products have 7 to 10 grams of protein in an 8-ounce serving. For those whose diets have generous amounts of protein from other sources and who want a beverage that does not supply extra protein, lite soymilk, rice beverages, and almond milks are generally quite low in protein.

Whole cow's milk has a hefty 8 grams of fat per cup. Skim cow's milk has no fat. None of the milks we examined had as much fat or saturated fat as whole cow's milk. Most regular soy beverages have a fat content similar to reduced fat (2%) cow's milk (around 3-4 grams of fat per serving). Beverages labeled nonfat, lite, and low fat, as well as rice-based beverages and Pacific Multi-grain and Naturally Oat, are lower in fat, ranging from 0-2 grams of fat per cup.

Cow's milk is a significant source of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and riboflavin. Many non-dairy beverage makers add these vitamins and minerals to their products to make them more closely resemble the nutritional makeup of cow's milk. Other sources for these nutrients exist but these beverages do represent options for those whose diets do not otherwise have enough of these vitamins and minerals. A recent study found that calcium in fortified soymilk is absorbed about 75% as well as is the calcium in cow's milk. This means that soymilk containing 500 milligrams of calcium per serving would supply approximately as much usable calcium as does a serving of cow's milk containing 300 milligrams of calcium. It's very important to shake fortified milks very well before serving because if you don't, there is "sludge" at the bottom of the carton that I suspect contains a significant amount of calcium in the product. This varies from product to product and seemed less noticeable in products from the dairy case. The charts accompanying this article give information on calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 levels in non-dairy milks.

We should note that while these products are popular with many adults and children, none of these beverages should be used to replace infant formulas or breast milk. They are not suitable for use by infants as a main food since they do not resemble breastmilk or infant formula in composition.

When you are choosing a non-dairy milk, there are many things to consider. Here are some common considerations and suggestions for products that will meet those needs.

I want a product that does not contain animal ingredients.

Most of the beverages that were examined for this article did not contain animal ingredients. Better than Milk, Sun Soy, and Natur-a had vitamin D added that was derived from lanolin from sheep's wool. The other products that contained vitamin D stated that the vitamin D was vegan (it was often derived from torula yeast). Natur-a and Trader Joe's Soy-um Strawberry flavor uses carmine to add a red color. Carmine is derived from the dried bodies of female beetles. Whyte's DariFree is made with honey.

I want a product to use as a daily beverage for my vegan child.

If a non-dairy milk is being used as a primary beverage for a vegan child, it should contain generous amounts of protein and calories. Fat-reduced beverages, lite beverages, and beverages that are low in protein (like rice milk, almond milk, and oat milk) may not provide enough protein and calories for growing children when used as a mainstay of the diet. Many vegan parents use a fortified soymilk to supply calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Unless a vegan child has other reliable sources of these nutrients on a daily basis, parents will want to choose a product that supplies these nutrients. The charts accompanying this article provide information on good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.

I drink cow's milk but want to try something different for cooking.

Any of the non-dairy milks are suitable for use in cooking. Savory recipes work best with unflavored (often called original or plain) non-dairy milks. Vanilla, chocolate, and carob flavors can add interest to dessert recipes. You can even make a substitute for buttermilk by adding a Tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of the non-dairy milk and letting it sit for a few minutes. Once you're used to cooking with non-dairy milk, give it a try as a beverage!

I'd prefer a product with organic ingredients and no GMO soybeans.

The following companies use organic ingredients: EdenSoy, Natur-a, Pacific Soy Beverages, Rice Dream Original and Original Enriched, So Nice Soyganic, Soy Dream, Soy-um, Vita Soy, West Soy (except Westbrae Rice and Oat beverages), and White Wave. All products that contain organically produced soybeans do not contain genetically modified soybeans. Sunrise, Solait, and Geni-Soy soy beverages use non-GMO (but not organic) soybeans.

I want a product my family will like.

You're on your own here. Some people prefer a less sweet product, some a sweeter product. Some don't mind a slight beany taste, others do. Have a taste test by buying several brands of non-dairy milk that meet your criteria and letting everyone vote on their favorite. Be sure to serve chilled and shake well to maximize acceptability. If your family is used to drinking cow's milk, you may want to stress that this is a different product so they don't expect it to taste like something it isn't.

I want a product that doesn't have much (or any) sugar added.

Generally, more sweetener is added to flavored beverages (like vanilla or chocolate) than to plain or original flavors. Sweeteners used include sugar cane, evaporated cane juice, sugar cane juice, and brown rice syrup. Products have between 0 and 27 grams of sugar in an 8-ounce serving. The products that appear to have no added sweeteners are West Soy Unsweetened, Rice Dream, Westbrae Oat Plus, Pacific Naturally Oat, and Soyganic Natural.

I want a product that's not too high in sodium.

Non-dairy milks generally have between 50 and 230 milligrams of sodium in a cup. Cow's milk has around 120 milligrams. Products that have less than 90 milligrams of sodium in a cup include Silk plain, West Soy nonfat, Westbrae Natural Rice, Westbrae Oat Plus, Pacific rice beverages, Pacific Multi-grain, West Soy unsweetened, and Pacific fat-free.

I want a product that supplies whatever it is in soy that's supposed to be good for you.

Soymilks contain plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) called isoflavones that appear to have health benefits. Levels in soymilk vary. The USDA nutrient database reports a value of 23 milligrams of isoflavones in a cup of soymilk. A range of 2-60 milligrams of isoflavones per cup was found in our survey, with VitaSoy and So Nice Soyganic refrigerated having the highest level. Choose a product that meets your needs and let others know how versatile, healthful, and delicious non-dairy milks can be.

Calcium content of fortified plant milks (ranked from highest to lowest; cow's milk included for comparison purposes)

Product Calcium (milligrams in 1 cup)
  • Sun Soy, Better Than Rice (not light)
  • 400
  • Better Than Milk powder Chocolate and Carob flavors, liquid Original
  • 350
  • Natur-a, Pacific Ultra and Enriched, Rice Choice, Rice Dream Enriched, Rice-Um (not fat-free), Silk, So Nice Soyganic, Soy Dream Enriched, Vita Soy Enriched, Vita Soy Refrigerated Low-fat Vanilla, Better Than Milk powder Light and Vanilla flavor, Westbrae Natural Rice and Oat Plus, West Soy Plus and Lunchbox Plus
  • 300
  • Cow's Milk
  • 300
  • Better Than Milk Vanilla and Lite, Westbrae Rice Beverage, Geni-Soy, Whyte's DariFree
  • 250
  • Almond Breeze, EdenSoy Extra, West Soy Nonfat and Lowfat, Pacific Fat-free Soy, Solait, Soy-Um Fat-free
  • 200
  • Pacific Enriched Rice and Lowfat Rice, Rice-Um Fat-free
  • 150
    Note: The recommended daily intake of calcium for 1-3-year-olds is 500 milligrams; for 4-8-year-olds it is 800 milligrams; 1,300 milligrams for 9-18-year-olds; 1,000 milligrams for 19-50-year-olds; and 1,200 milligrams for those older than 50 years.

    Vitamin D content of fortified plant milks (ranked from highest to lowest; cow's milk included for comparison purposes)

    Product Vitamin D (IU in 1 cup)
  • Pacific Enriched Rice and Lowfat Rice, Pacific Ultra and Enriched Soy, Pacific Fat-free Soy, Silk
  • 120
  • Almond Breeze; Rice Dream Enriched; Better Than Milk* Soy Light and Vanilla, Rice Original and Vanilla; Soy Dream Enriched; Sun Soy*; West Soy Plus, Lowfat, Nonfat, Lunchbox Plus; Westbrae Rice Beverage and Oat Plus
  • 100
  • Cow's Milk
  • 100
  • Natur-a*, Rice Choice, So Nice Soyganic, Vita Soy Enriched, Vita Soy Refrigerated Lowfat Vanilla
  • 80
  • Geni-Soy
  • 60
  • EdenSoy Extra
  • 40
    Note: 200 IU of vitamin D are recommended daily for 1-50-year-olds; 400 IU for 51-70-year-olds; and 600 IU for those older than 70 years.
    *Product contains vitamin D derived from sheep's wool.

    Vitamin B12 content of fortified plant milks (ranked from highest to lowest; cow's milk included for comparison purposes)

    Product Vitamin B12 (micrograms in 1 cup)
  • EdenSoy Extra, Silk, Soy Dream Enriched, Sun Soya
  • 3
  • Rice Dream Enriched
  • 1.5
  • Rice Choice, So Nice Soyganic
  • 1
  • Natur-a, Vita Soy Enriched, Geni-Soy
  • 0.9
  • Cow's Milk
  • 0.9
  • Better than Milk Soy and Rice (except Rice Light)
  • 0.6
    Note: 0.9 micrograms of vitamin B12 are recommended daily for 1-3-year-olds; 1.2 micrograms for 4-8-year-olds; 1.8 micrograms for 9-13-year-olds; and 2.4 micrograms for those 14 and older.

    Products Evaluated for this Article

  • Almond Breeze Original, Vanilla, Chocolate

  • Better Than Milk Rice Original, Vanilla, Original Light, Vanilla Light
  • Better Than Milk Soy Original, Vanilla, Chocolate, Carob, and Light
  • EdenSoy Extra Original and Vanilla; Eden Blend; Original, Vanilla, and Carob
  • Geni-Soy Natural, Vanilla, Chocolate
  • Imagine Foods Rice Dream Vanilla, Chocolate, Organic Original, Carob; Rice Dream Enriched Original, Vanilla, Chocolate; Soy Dream Enriched Original, Vanilla, Chocolate; Soy Dream Enriched Refrigerated Vanilla and Original; Soy Dream Original, Vanilla, Carob
  • Natur-a Original, Vanilla, Chocolate, and Strawberry
  • Pacific Foods Enriched Rice Fat-free Cocoa, Vanilla, Plain; Naturally Almond Vanilla and Original; Multigrain Original; Naturally Oat Original and Vanilla; Rice Cocoa; Low-fat Rice Plain, Vanilla, Cocoa; Ultra Soy Vanilla; Enriched Soy Vanilla, Carob, Cocoa, Plain; Fat-free Soy Plain and Vanilla
  • Rice-Um Original and Vanilla, Original and Vanilla Fat-free
  • Soyaworld So Nice Soyganic Natural, Vanilla, Chocolate
  • Soyaworld Rice Choice Original and Vanilla
  • Soy-Um Original, Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry, Coffee, Original Fat-free, Vanilla Fat-free
  • Sunrise Natural and Sweetened
  • Sun Soy Vanilla
  • Vita Soy Enriched Original and Vanilla; Refrigerated Creamy Original and Chocolate; Refrigerated Vanilla Delite Low-fat; Lite Vanilla, Original, and Cocoa; Carob Supreme; Creamy Original; Rich Cocoa; Vanilla Delight
  • Westbrae Natural Rice Vanilla and Plain; Oat Plus Original
  • West Soy Nonfat Vanilla and Plain; Lunchbox Plus Vanilla and Plain; Plus Vanilla and Plain; Low-fat Vanilla and Plain; Original and Unsweetened; Lite Vanilla, Plain, and Cocoa
  • White Wave Silk Plain, Vanilla, Chocolate
  • Whyte's DariFree Regular and Chocolate

    Thanks to Amy Bottrell, W. H. (Dell) Lunceford, Jr, and Susan Weinstein for their help gathering product information for this article.


    Excerpts from the Jan/Feb 2001 Issue


    The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.



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