The milk section of the dairy case isn’t what it used to be. Along with milk, there’s a growing variety of plant-based milk alternatives.
While many plant-based milk alternatives have the word “milk” in their name, the nutritional content can vary between the products, & many of them don’t have the same amount of calcium & vitamin D or other nutrients as milk.
Soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin A & vitamin D are the only plant-based alternatives with a nutrient content similar enough to milk to be included in the dairy group in the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
So, what should you look for when choosing plant-based milk alternatives?
“The nutrients you get from plant-based milk alternatives can depend on which plant source is used, the processing methods, & added ingredients, so check the label carefully,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Has the product been fortified with nutrients such as calcium? How much added sugar is in the product? What is the protein content?”
“The Nutrition Facts label on the packaging can help you compare the nutrient content of the various plant-based milk alternatives to milk,” said Dr. Mayne. “The label can help you choose the best products to meet your nutrient needs & those of your family.”
Plant-Based Milk Alternatives
Although many plant-based milk alternatives are labeled with names that have the word “milk”, these products are made from plant sources, not milk. The plant sources include:
- Grains such as oat, quinoa & rice.
- Legumes such as pea & soy.
- Nuts such as almond, cashew, coconut, hazelnut, macadamia, peanut, pistachio & walnut.
- Seeds such as flax, hemp & sesame.
Because these are non-dairy products, they may offer an option for people who are allergic to milk or want to avoid dairy products for dietary reasons or personal preference. If you are choosing a plant-based milk alternative because you are counting calories, check the nutrition label because some alternatives may actually be higher in calories than nonfat & low-fat milk, or may be much lower in protein than milk.
Dairy foods, including milk & fortified soy beverages, are recommended in the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines as part of a healthy dietary pattern.
Dairy foods provide important nutrients that include protein, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B12, zinc, choline, & selenium. Three of these nutrients — calcium, potassium & vitamin D — are among those flagged by the Dietary Guidelines as dietary components of public health concern because people aren’t consuming enough of them.
Soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin A, & vitamin D are included in the dairy group in the Dietary Guidelines because they are similar to milk based on their nutrient composition & use in meals. Other plant-based milk alternatives may have calcium & be a source of calcium, but they aren’t included in the dairy group because their overall nutritional content isn’t similar to milk or fortified soy milk, according to the Dietary Guidelines.
Using the Nutrition Facts Label
Some of the key nutrients found in dairy products are required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label, including calcium, vitamin D & potassium. Here are the nutrients you can find on the label & why they are important to your health:
Choose milk & plant-based milk alternatives that are higher in protein, vitamin D, calcium & potassium.
- Protein builds bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones & vitamins.
- Vitamin D maintains proper levels of calcium & phosphorus, which can help build & maintain bones.
- Calcium builds bones & teeth in children & maintains bone strength as you age.
- Potassium may help maintain blood pressure & is needed for proper muscle, kidney & heart function.
Choose milk & plant-based milk alternatives that are lower in saturated fats & added sugars.
- Saturated fats may increase the risk of heart disease.
- Added sugars may make it hard to meet nutrient needs & stay within calorie limits.
There are special considerations* for infants & young children to make sure they get the nutrients they need:
- Infants should not consume milk or plant-based milk alternatives before age 12 months to replace human milk or infant formula.
- Children ages 12 months through 23 months can be offered whole milk or fortified, unsweetened soy milk to help meet calcium, potassium, vitamin D & protein needs.
*Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans
More Nutrition Information for Plant-based Milk Alternatives
The FDA is taking steps to help consumers better understand some of the nutritional differences between milk & plant-based milk alternatives. In February 2023, the FDA issued a draft guidance that recommends that a plant-based milk alternative that is labeled with the term “milk” in its name — & that has a nutrient composition different from milk — include a voluntary nutrient statement that communicates how the product is nutritionally different from milk.
- Plant-Based Milk Alternatives, FDA
- The New Nutrition Facts Label, FDA
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, HHS, USDA
- MyPlate, USDA
- Draft Guidance for Industry: Labeling of Plant-based Milk Alternatives & Voluntary Nutrient Statements, FDA
Source: FDA Consumer Updates