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Comparing dairy and non-dairy milk

An Expanding Selection: Comparing dairy and non-dairy milk

by: Madeleine Russell

UVM MSD Student

“Drink milk for strong bones!” is a phrase many of us have heard from childhood. Milk, known as an all-star calcium source, is also an excellent source of protein and vitamins. But it is becoming more common to see non-dairy milks on store shelves: soy, rice, almond, coconut, hemp, etc. Some individuals turn to these because they are sensitive to lactose in cow’s milk. Others seek a more plant-based diet. With so many choices, it is difficult to understand the differences between them. Let’s take a look at how non-dairy milk products compare to cow’s milk.

Non-dairy milks are not known for calcium in the way that cow’s milk is; however, most of them can have up to the same amount or more once calcium is added to them. This is often done to make the nutrient content “match” cow’s milk more closely. The calcium in cow’s milk is easily absorbed by the body. Luckily, the supplemental form added to non-dairy milk is also easily absorbed, which means that you don’t have to miss out on calcium even if you choose to go dairy-free.

After cow’s milk, the beverage with the highest protein content is soy milk. Soy protein is similar to cow’s milk protein in that it has all the essential building blocks, also known as essential amino acids, needed by your body to build new proteins. Other non-dairy milks have very little protein, and do not supply the same set of amino acids. In this case, the bulk of dietary protein will have to come from other foods.

To increase overall nutrition, many producers add extra vitamins to milk and non-dairy milk. Cow’s milk naturally has vitamin B12, but this is only found in animal products, so non-dairy makers must add B12. Vitamins A and D are also added to many types of milk, including cow’s milk.

Put simply, because of its high protein content, soy milk is most similar to cow’s milk. However, the others have levels of calcium, and vitamins B12, A, and D that are close to cow’s milk thanks to fortification practices. Any of these options fits into a well-rounded diet. Just be aware that you may have to look for additional sources of nutrients, particularly protein, to receive the greatest benefits from your choices.


A buyer’s guide to milk alternatives. Eating Well website.  http://www.eatingwell.com/healthy_cooking/healthy_cooking_101/shopping_cooking_guides/a_buyer_s_guide_to_milk_part_ii. Accessed August 7, 2014.

Thomas J. Milk and milk alternatives: how do they compare? Moore Family Center Blog: Oregon State University website. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/moore/2013/02/milk-and-milk-alternatives-how-do-they-compare/. Published February 1, 2013. Accessed August 8, 2014.

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