Expert Health Articles


Nancy George

Therapeutic Dietician

Milk does the body well. But what about all the choices now in the store? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the term “milk” refers to the lacteal secretion from healthy cows. In many cases, “milk” can also refer to the lacteal secretion of any mammal, such as a goat, camel, etc. Over the past few years, many beverages have been developed and marketed with the term “milk” on the labels, but these products are plant-based, not from mammals. Examples include rice milk, soy milk and almond milk.

What is the nutritional value of these beverages? Milk from cows is known to be a great source of calcium (usually 300 milligrams/cup), protein (8 grams/cup) and is fortified with vitamin D and vitamin A.   Vitamin D is an especially hard nutrient to obtain, as there are not many good dietary sources.

The plant-based beverages can be referred to as milk substitutes.  If you have a lactose or milk-protein allergy, these can be great alternatives and give you something to put on your cereal or make soups or smoothies with, but are they appropriate for children without true milk allergies?

An almond beverage is a great source of calcium with 450 milligrams/cup, but only has one gram of protein along with added sugar as the second ingredient.  A soy beverage has 10 grams of protein a cup along with 300 milligrams of calcium and is fairly comparable to cow’s milk, but there has been some controversy about the natural estrogen-like qualities of soy.  A rice beverage has one gram of protein, 19 milligrams of calcium and 10 grams of added sugar.  Additionally, coconut varieties – milk and water are low in calcium (20 milligrams or less per cup), and contain little protein. Coconut ‘milk’ also has 50 grams of fat per cup for 485 calories. Many of these beverages have plenty of added sugar, and with the guidelines discouraging more than 10% of daily calories coming from added sugars, these beverages may not meet guidelines.

Growing children need quality sources of protein and calcium for muscle and bone growth; 25 – 50 grams of protein per day and 1,000 – 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day.  Children also need nutritious sources of calories to meet energy needs. So, if you are considering non-milk beverages, please make sure your children are also meeting calcium and protein needs. If you need assistance in making good selections, ask your health care provider for advice.