Are all milks created equal?

Milk alternatives: A photo of different types of milk

When I was a kid, the only kinds of milk I was familiar with all came from a cow. And oh, how I loved milk. Milk in my cereal, milk with cookies, milk to wash down a plate of spaghetti, chocolate milk, strawberry milk … you get the idea.

Then, sometime in my early 20s, milk and I stopped getting along. Yogurt? Fine. Hard cheeses? Sure. But milk (and ice cream – the horror!) would send me running for the nearest restroom.

I’ve had soy, almond, coconut and rice milk, and this weekend, I even spotted cashew milk at my grocery store. But I wondered – with more alternative milk options on the market today than I can count – are all milks created equal?

I reached out to Pam L’Heureux, a registered dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Senior Manager at Banner Baywood Medical Center, to find out whether these plant-based milks are a good source of calcium and if there are other pros and cons to be aware of.

L’Heureux said the recommended amount of calcium depends on age, gender and other factors such as pregnancy or breastfeeding, but for most adults, it is between 1,000 and 1,200 mg per day. Milk, yogurt and cheese are obvious sources of calcium. There are also vegetable sources, including broccoli, kale and tofu, however these aren’t absorbed as well as the dairy products. Other foods, such as juice or cereals, are often fortified with calcium. So are most of the plant-based milks, which makes them a great non-dairy source of the mineral, she said.

Alternative milks are also lower in saturated fat, L’Heureux said. The drawback is that they usually don’t offer as much protein as dairy, but because most Americans tend to get enough protein it’s not much of a concern. She does, however, caution against regularly drinking the chocolate or vanilla options.

“The flavored milks are very high in sugar,” she said. “I always choose the unsweetened version.”

L’Heureux said the nutritional value of the alternative milks are pretty similar, but certain kinds can be better than others for those with health conditions. She said it’s always important to discuss your diet with your health care provider, and to also consult with a provider before beginning any supplements.

Also see: Do you scream at ice cream? (Infographic)

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