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Comparison of the Nutrient Content of Cow’s Milk and Nondairy Milk Alternatives: What’s the Difference?

Schuster, Margaret J., MS, RDN, CD, CNSC; Wang, Xinyue; Hawkins, Tiffany, RDN, LD; Painter, James E., PhD, RDN

doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000284
Food and Nutrition

Considering the number of non-dairy milk alternatives (NDMAs), it is important to recognize the nutrients they provide and their cost in comparison to cow’s milk. Using nutrient data from the US Department of Agriculture Food Composition Databases and branded Web sites, we compared the amount of key nutrients provided by 2 categories of cow’s milk (white and flavored), with the amount of those nutrients typically found in 3 categories (unsweetened, original, and flavored) of the most popular NDMAs, including soy, rice, almond, coconut, and cashew milks. We evaluated beverages focusing on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans shortfall nutrients that are underconsumed in the United States: potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C, although additional nutrients are considered. Nutrients that are overconsumed were also considered: added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. If only NDMAs fortified with vitamins A, D, and calcium are considered, the NDMAs have a nutrient profile similar to cow’s milk for these nutrients. When considering the nutrients that are not fortified, soy is the only NDMA that is comparable to cow’s milk. All of the other NDMAs contain considerably less of these unfortified minerals. Fat-free cow’s milk and soy milk contain similar amounts of protein, 8 and 7 g, respectively. Almond, cashew, coconut, and rice milks provide approximately 1 g or less of protein per serving. Unfortified skim milk contains 7 nutrients greater than 10% of the daily value including protein, calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus, and pantothenic acid; unfortified soy milk has 2 nutrients greater than 10% (calcium and protein), and unfortified almond, coconut, and cashew do not have any nutrients greater than 10% of the daily value. In conclusion, if the reason for consuming NDMAs is to provide a beverage that is nutritionally similar to cow’s milk for growing children, then only soy is nutritionally similar, and the other NDMAs are not a good substitute. If the goal is a vegan, sugar-free, low-calorie beverage that provides calcium, and total nutrient content is not a major factor, then an unflavored, unsweetened NDMAs may be a good alternative to cow’s milk. Overall, our conclusions agree with Singhal et al (J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2017;64(5):799–805), if the goal is to provide a beverage nutritionally similar to cow’s milk for growing children, then, with the exception of soy, NDMAs are not nutritionally similar to cow’s milk and are not a good substitute.

Margaret J. Schuster, MS, RDN, CD, CNSC is a clinical dietitian at WhidbeyHealth Medical Center, Coupeville, Washington, and an independent consultant in the arena of promoting healthful, whole food ingredients.

Xinyue Wang, is undergraduate student at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Tiffany Hawkins, RDN, LD, is a dietitian at Capital Region Medical Center, Jefferson, Missouri.

James E. Painter, PhD, RDN, is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas–Houston, School of Public Health, and emeritus professor at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston.

J.E.P. has received speaking honoraria from the National Soybean Research Lab, the Wonderful Company, state Dairy Council affiliates, and the Almond Board of California. He has received research funding from the Wonderful Company and the Soybean Checkoff Board and served on an advisory board for White Wave Silk Brands and the National Dairy Council. The other authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Correspondence: James E. Painter, PhD, RDN, 2216 Padre Blvd B-119, South Padre Island, TX 78597 (jimpainterphd@gmail.com).

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