Dairy foods are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate food planning guide. MyPlate offers a visual message relating the groups of nutrient-rich foods that are part of a healthful diet.
These groups include proteins, grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy. When a variety of foods is consistently included, the diet is more likely to meet a body’s nutrient requirements.
Recent data from the USDA show that Americans have been decreasing per person consumption of milk since the 1970s. Between 1977-1978 and 2007-2008, the proportion of adolescents and adults who did not drink fluid milk on a given day rose from 41 percent to 54 percent, while those that drank milk three or more times per day dropped from 13 percent to 4 percent.
These consumption patterns fall short of the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation that we consume two to three cups of dairy products daily, depending on factors such as age, gender and level of physical activity.
USDA surveyors note that competition from other beverages, especially carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and bottled water, is likely contributing to the changes in frequency of fluid milk consumption. Also of note is the realization that some consumers are opting for milk substitutes instead of cow’s milk.
Reasons for avoiding cow’s milk vary. For some, limiting milk is simply a dietary preference. Others follow vegetarian lifestyles that entail removing dairy foods from the diet. Lastly, some people develop a sensitivity to milk.
In fact, an estimated 30 million to 50 million people in the United States are lactose-intolerant. These people cannot digest a typical serving of cow’s milk without developing gastrointestinal symptoms. A deficiency in lactase, the enzyme produced in the digestive system, is often the root of the problem because lactase is essential to the complete digestion of whole milk, specifically the lactose sugar in milk.
Sensitivity to milk may also be caused by a milk allergy, in which the body negatively reacts to a protein in the milk. Approximately 2.5 percent of children under age 3 experience a milk allergy, which may resolve in adulthood.
Finding a milk substitute has never been easier. Grocery shelves are now well-stocked. Products come in shelf-stable boxes or are kept cold in refrigerated cases near the cow’s milk. In a quick count at my local national-chain grocery store, I found 75 different offerings of plant-based milk substitutes. In conducting my search, I counted all items that came in a liquid form and replaced cow’s milk.
Milk substitutes have varied plant ingredients. I found products from grains such as oat, rice and quinoa. Others contained seeds or nuts, such as sunflower, almond, coconut, flax or chia. Some contained soy, a legume. Still more were products that combined two or more of these plant foods.
Most plant-based milk substitutes are made through a process of being shelled, toasted or cooked, and ground before blending with filtered water. Nutrition quality is best when beverages are made with the whole plant foods rather than protein isolates, such as the case in some soy milk production.
In choosing a milk substitute, there are three main factors to consider: taste, cost and nutrient profile. I tasted a few products, choosing from among the unsweetened, unflavored varieties. I found many of these compared well as a substitute to my usual skim milk beverage of choice, with the exception of taste and color.
There is a definite taste difference among the milk substitutes, and it will require some experimenting to find the product that suits you. Of note, the color of the products varied from the vivid white of coconut milk to the muted nut-shade of the almond milk.
Milk substitutes are going to cost you more than cow’s milk that can be purchased for less than 25 cents per cup. The refrigerated substitutes typically come in half-gallon cartons with prices varying from 37 cents to 50 cents per cup in my local store. The shelf-stable boxes are going to be the most expensive. These come in one-quart containers and vary from 50 cents to 72 cents per cup.
The nutrition value
Milk and milk products as a whole contribute protein, riboflavin, vitamin B12, calcium, potassium and, when fortified, vitamin A and vitamin D to the diet. When dairy foods are missing from the diet, other foods must be chosen that will help to meet the body’s daily needs.
With this in mind, if you rely on plant-based milks as a source of protein, you may be surprised to find that many cannot compare to cow’s milk. Soy milk often provides 6 or 7 grams of protein per cup, compared to 8 grams in cow’s milk. However, milk substitutes from grains or seeds are going to contain about 1 gram per cup, unless you are drinking a beverage that is protein-fortified.
For many Americans, milk is a big contributor to our calcium intake for the day. One cup of milk provides nearly 300 milligrams of calcium or 30 percent of the Daily Value (as expressed on the food label).
When you replace milk, it is important to eat foods that are good sources of calcium, such as canned fish with bones (sardines, salmon), tofu, vegetable greens or other milk products. Plant-based milk substitutes can be a source of calcium, but only when they are fortified. Check the Nutrition Facts label on each product.
You can consume a nutritious diet without milk products. When consuming milk substitutes, make informed choices to get the best fit for your health and nutrient needs daily.
Sara Perovich is a registered dietitian nutritionist working as a clinical dietitian and nutrition educator in the Albuquerque area. She is a member of the New Mexico Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.