The dairy case has seen a growing variety of plant-based milk alternatives, but consumers should be aware of the nutritional differences between these products and traditional milk. While many plant-based milk alternatives have the word “milk” in their name, their nutritional content can vary widely, with many lacking the same amount of calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients found in milk.
According to Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 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.
When choosing plant-based milk alternatives, Mayne advises consumers to check the label carefully for information on nutrient fortification, added sugar, and protein content. The Nutrition Facts label can help compare the nutrient content of various plant-based milk alternatives to milk.
Plant-based milk alternatives can be made from 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; and seeds such as flax, hemp, and sesame. These non-dairy products may offer an option for people who are allergic to milk or want to avoid dairy products for dietary reasons or personal preference.
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.
Consumers should choose milk and plant-based milk alternatives that are higher in protein, vitamin D, calcium and potassium while being lower in saturated fats and added sugars. The Nutrition Facts label can help consumers make informed choices about their milk consumption.
Watch out for young children
When it comes to infants and young children, there are special considerations to ensure 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. For children ages 12 months through 23 months, whole milk or fortified, unsweetened soy milk can be offered to help meet their calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein needs.
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