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, and many of them don’t have the same amount of calcium and vitamin D or other nutrients as milk.
Soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin A and 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, and added ingredients, so check the label carefully,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the U.S. Food and 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 and 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 and rice.
- Legumes such as pea and soy.
- Nuts such as almond, cashew, coconut, hazelnut, macadamia, peanut, pistachio and walnut.
- Seeds such as flax, hemp and 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 and low-fat milk, or may be much lower in protein than milk.
Dairy foods, including milk and 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, and selenium. Three of these nutrients — calcium, potassium and 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, and vitamin D are included in the dairy group in the Dietary Guidelines because they are similar to milk based on their nutrient composition and use in meals. Other plant-based milk alternatives may have calcium and 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 and potassium. Here are the nutrients you can find on the label and why they are important to your health:
Choose milk and plant-based milk alternatives that are higher in protein, vitamin D, calcium and potassium.
- Protein builds bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones and vitamins.
- Vitamin D maintains proper levels of calcium and phosphorus, which can help build and maintain bones.
- Calcium builds bones and teeth in children and maintains bone strength as you age.
- Potassium may help maintain blood pressure and is needed for proper muscle, kidney and heart function.
Choose milk and plant-based milk alternatives that are lower in saturated fats and added sugars.
- Saturated fats may increase the risk of heart disease.
- Added sugars may make it hard to meet nutrient needs and stay within calorie limits.
There are special considerations* for infants and 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 and 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 and 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 — and that has a nutrient composition different from milk — include a voluntary nutrient statement that communicates how the product is nutritionally different from milk.