DEAR MAYO CLINIC: Since I was a kid, I’ve been drinking milk with breakfast and dinner as my primary beverage. But looking in the grocery store coolers these days, there are so many options other than cow’s milk. Are plant-based milks like soy or almond milk healthier options?
ANSWER: Dairy (cow’s) milk and plant-based beverages like soy and almond milks all can be healthy choices. However, the nutritional differences vary widely, depending on the type of product and the brand. Generally, reviewing the nutritional information — focus on fat content, protein, calcium and the amount of added sugars — you can determine the right beverage for you.
Fat content is important because the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7% of calories in your overall diet. Skim milk has negligible amounts of fat, but the amounts of cholesterol-raising saturated fat increase stepwise with 1%, 2% or whole milk. Soy and almond milks contain about 2 to 4 grams of fat per cup, but those fats are predominantly healthy, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Comparing protein content, dairy milk takes the protein title with a little over 8 grams per cup, and soy milk close behind with about 7 grams per cup. Traditional almond milk lags behind with just 1 gram per cup. Of note, some newer nut milk varieties have added pea protein.
When considering calcium, dairy milk naturally has about 300 milligrams per cup, and dairy products generally are considered the best absorbed source of calcium. Many soy or almond milks are fortified with calcium to at least match the amount of calcium in dairy milk. That said, your body may not absorb all of the calcium in soy milk since soy contains a natural compound (phytate) that inhibits calcium absorption.
And then there are added sugars. Unflavored white dairy milk and unsweetened soy and almond milk contain no added sugars. However, for some, the taste of unsweetened soy or almond milk can be an issue. You may find 4 to more than 20 grams of added sugars in a sweetened — or flavored — beverage. Checking the Nutrition Facts label is the best way to find a taste you like with minimal added sugars. Remember, unflavored white dairy milk will have sugar listed on the label, but it is lactose, which is naturally occurring milk sugar.
In summary, it’s tough to beat dairy milk for balanced nutrition — with nonfat skim milk the best choice for most adults. Still, not everyone can tolerate dairy milk, and some may prefer to avoid animal products — or simply want to mix in something different. Unsweetened soy milk is the closest match nutritionally, plus you get a few grams of healthy fats that you won’t get from skim milk. Almond milk — while not unhealthy — is less nutrient-dense, especially in terms of its limited protein content. With soy or almond milk, check the Nutrition Facts labels for adequate calcium and minimal added sugars.