Plant-based milks have been rising in popularity in recent years, with a wide variety of non-dairy alternatives now available on the market – soya, almond, oat, rice, pea, coconut, hemp, cashew, to name a few. There are many reasons why individuals opt for these non-dairy alternatives, whether it be due to allergies, intolerances, following a vegan diet or for ethical reasons. But how do these compare to cow’s milk? And what key nutritional components should we be looking out for when choosing a plant-based milk alternative?
Cow’s milk and dairy products are a rich source of a number of nutrients important in a healthy balanced diet, including protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. The majority of plant-based milks are lower in protein than cow’s milk, however soya milk has a high protein content, and there are a number of non-dairy products available with added protein.
Although dairy is known for being calcium-rich, the majority of non-dairy milk alternatives are fortified with calcium – meaning that calcium is added to these products. Even better, the level of calcium added to plant-based milks often equals or exceeds the quantities of calcium found in cow’s milk. Although these milk alternatives have high levels of calcium, it is also important to consider whether how easily our bodies are able to absorb this calcium, known as it’s bioavailability. The more bioavailable the calcium, the more we our bodies can absorb. More research is needed to determine the bioavailability of calcium in non-dairy milks (1), however some studies suggest that the bioavailability of calcium in plant-based milks are lower than that in cow’s milk (2). If you’re concerned about the bioavailability of calcium from non-dairy milks, opt for a product that is also fortified with vitamin D. When vitamin D is consumed at the same time as calcium, it’s able to boost the absorption of calcium in our bodies (3).
Due to legislation in the UK, most organic products will not be fortified with any additional nutrients, so it’s important to take this into consideration when selecting milk alternatives to ensure you are meeting a healthy balanced diet.
Milk and dairy products are the main source of iodine in the UK diet, followed by fish and eggs. Hence, if you are excluding dairy from your diet, it is important to ensure you are obtaining iodine from other sources, particularly if you are following a vegan diet that also excludes fish and eggs. Iodine is less commonly fortified in plant-based milks so it’s important to check the labels to see if your favourite milk alternatives are fortified with iodine. As mentioned before, if a product is organic, it won’t be fortified with iodine. Some common brands that do fortify with iodine are Oatly and Mighty Pea. The Innocent brand of plant-based milks don’t specifically fortify with iodine, however they use seaweed to fortify their products with calcium, and seaweed naturally contains high levels of iodine!
Cow’s milk is also a great source of vitamin B12. If you are consuming other animal-based products, then you probably don’t need to worry about whether you’re meeting your requirements of vitamin B12. However, if you’re following a vegan diet that omits all animal products, it’s more important that you look for plant-based milk products that are fortified with vitamin B12. If following a vegan diet that excludes all animal-derived products, you should aim to consume foods fortified with vitamin B12, however if your favourite products aren’t fortified, a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed.
The nutrient profile of different plant-based milks will vary, so it’s important to always read the food labels when purchasing milk alternatives. If a product is fortified with different nutrients, these will often be listed in the ingredients list and may also be included in the back of pack nutrition tables.
My top tips for selecting a plant-based milk are:
1. Always read the labels! Keep an eye out for products fortified with calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. Fortification with vitamin D is a bonus!
2. Organic doesn’t always mean better – remember that most organic products won’t be fortified.
3. Opt for unsweetened where you can. Many plant-based milks will be sweetened, meaning that they’re higher in added sugars compared to dairy milk.
1. Singhal S, Baker RD, Baker SS. A Comparison of the Nutritional Value of Cow’s Milk and Nondairy Beverages. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 2017;64(5): 799-805. Available from: doi: 10.1097/MPG.0000000000001380.
2. Buzinaro EF, Alves de Almeida RN, Mazeto GMFS. Bioavailability of Dietary Calcium. Brazilian Archives of Endocrinology & Metabology. 2006;50(5): 852-862. Available from: doi: 10.1590/S0004-27302006000500005.
3. British Dietetic Association. Calcium: Food Fact Sheet. Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/calcium.html [Accessed 29th January 2022].