There are a growing number of choices available to consumers when it comes to alternatives to dairy milk on supermarket shelves. While it’s great to have options, especially for those who are lactose intolerant, to what extent should the rest of the population be embracing these milk alternatives, and just how healthy are they?
“Non-milk alternatives – or what we call plant-based beverages — are not better from a health perspective than cow’s milk,” says registered dietitian Monique Piderit. “In fact, most come with nutritional shortfalls compared to cow’s milk, particularly with regard to calcium and protein. They’re also very expensive, which is frustrating as a dietitian as it reinforces the assumption that healthy eating is expensive.”
It’s a common misperception that plant-based beverages such as soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk and almond milk are equal in nutritional value to cow’s milk. “While the assumption is that these alternatives are healthier than cow’s milk, consumers who are using them are actually taking a step backwards with their nutrition given that many of these plant-based beverages fall short of nutrients like protein, calcium and vitamin D,” reveals Piderit.
Cow’s milk is a natural source of easily absorbed protein, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B12 iodine, potassium and phosphorus. Most plant-based beverages, on the other hand, are not naturally high in these nutrients.
Although it may be tempting to switch children away from dairy milk to plant-based beverages, experts warn that unless children are lactose intolerant they should stick to dairy milk for the simple reason that it supports growth in children, providing a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, amino acids, B12 ,iodine and magnesium, which are important for overall health as well as bone development and muscle function.
“Switching a child to a non-dairy beverage means they will fall short of reaching their calcium and protein needs and is not advised,” says Piderit. “The recommended daily allowance for calcium for children aged one to three is 700mg per day and for those aged four to eight it is 1000mg a day. Teenagers should also be encouraged to consume dairy products given that adolescence is a time of significant skeletal development and calcium is required to support this growth.”
Ian Givens, a food chain nutrition expert at the University of Reading agrees that calcium is crucial during adolescence for the development of bone strength. He says that if you don’t get bone development right in your teenage years, you run a higher risk of bone weakness later in life, particularly for women.
The South African Food-based Dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume two to three servings of dairy per day in order to help them reach their need for 1000mg of calcium daily. This can include milk, maas, yoghurt or cheese. One serving — which equates to 300mg of calcium — is the equivalent of one glass of milk, 200g of yoghurt, 30g of cheese or 200ml of maas.
Most plant-based beverages are lower in protein, calories, sugar and fat to dairy milk, and have a higher water content. Some — but not all — are fortified with calcium and vitamin D to make them more like milk and many of them have added sugar. However, there is a question mark over whether products fortified with vitamins and minerals provide the same health benefits as those occurring naturally in dairy milk and the extent to which these fortified substances are actually absorbed.
Cow’s milk, on the other hand, is a complete protein while the calcium in cow’s milk is highly bio-available which means the calcium is easily absorbed.
For those that are lactose intolerant, there are pros and cons to each plant-based beverage alternative, so you need to figure out what properties are important to you given that the nutrient content varies quite significantly across products. Bear in mind, for example, that standard coconut ‘milk’ has on average 15 times more fat than other plant-based beverages while even reduced-fat coconut ‘milk’ has seven times more fat, adding both calories and saturated fat. Rice ‘milk’ has virtually no protein and is high in both carbohydrates and sugar content which will increase blood glucose levels. Rice ‘milk’, on the other hand, can be harmful to babies and children. Almond ‘milk’ includes virtually no protein, while oat ‘milk’ is high in carbohydrates.
Piderit recommends making an informed decision before choosing a plant-based beverage. “You may need to take a calcium supplement to support the removal of calcium-rich cow’s milk from your diet. Vitamin D may also be low in these beverages, so expose your arms and legs to sunlight during mid-day hours three times a week to make up for this shortfall. Fish, eggs, and mushrooms are also good sources of vitamin D. Sugar is commonly added to improve the taste of plant-based beverages so try to choose unsweetened versions.”
Unless you’re switching to plant-based milk due to allergies, these milk alternatives are not an adequate replacement for dairy products from a nutritional perspective. If you have no alternative but to switch, do your homework carefully. Speak to a registered dietitian to help you make the best choice for your needs.