Plant-Based Beverages

Sharing the Dairy Shelf

Take a closer look at the dairy section in the grocery store. What was once a simple choice between skim, partly skimmed, or whole milk now includes flavoured milks, soy beverages, and various other beverages that are made from plants. More and more people are using plant-based beverages in place of cow’s milk but are they a healthy choice?

What are Plant-Based Beverages?

Plant-based beverages are made from a variety of plants soy, rice, coconut, almond, potato, and hemp plants to name a few. These beverages are white and creamy and often referred to as “milks”. There are many reasons why people may choose these drinks including allergies, lactose intolerance, taste preferences, vegetarian diets or a perceived health benefit. However, they are they are not all suitable alternatives to cow’s milk as their nutritional content can be very different. See Table 1 for average nutritional content of various beverages.

How to choose Plant-Based Beverages

Plant-based beverages have different nutrients depending on the plant source. Almond, coconut and rice beverages can be lower in fat and protein than cow’s milk. Flavoured options such as chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry provide extra calories and added sugars.

Read labels to choose plant-based beverages that:

  1. Are unsweetened. They are a better choice as they contain no added sugars.
  2. Are fortified with 90-100 IU vitamin D and about 300 mg calcium. Calcium and vitamin D are important for healthy bones. Milk and Alternatives are major sources of calcium and vitamin D.
  3. Have at least 8 grams of protein per serving. Only fortified soy beverages contain enough protein to be considered a Milk Alternative according to Canada’s Food Guide. If choosing lower protein beverages, make sure to get protein from other sources such as lean meats, beans and lentils, eggs, tofu or nuts.

Table 1. Nutrition information of 1 cup (250 mL) of milk and some plant-based beverages.

 

1% Partly Skimmed Cow’s Milk1

Fortified Soy Beverage1

Coconut Beverage2

Enriched Rice Beverage1

Calories

108 kcal

110 kcal

80 kcal

127 kcal

Carbohydrates

12.9 g

12.6 g

7 g

26.3 g

Fat

2.5 g

3.8 g

5 g

2.1 g

Protein

8.7 g

6.7 g

0.5 g

0.4 g

Calcium

322 mg

321 mg

0 mg

319 mg

Vitamin D

104 IU

88 IU

0 IU

88 IU

Manganese

0.008 mg

0.159mg

N/Aa

0.129 mg

1 From the Canadian Nutrient File database
2 From the Coconut Dream Original coconut beverage nutrition label
a N/A indicates that data is not available, but the value can range from 2.3-16 mg/serving.

Canada’s Food Guide recommends that Canadians drink 2 cups (500 mL) of cow’s milk or fortified soy beverage each day. In addition to calcium and vitamin D, milk also naturally provides many other important nutrients for health such as protein, phosphorus, riboflavin and vitamin A. Many plant-based beverages do not contain adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D to support bone development. It is important to read the Nutrition Facts label to make sure the products we choose are healthy ones.

A Drink for Children?

An infant can start drinking whole milk around 9-12 months of age. Once they are 2 years of age, lower fat milks such as skim, 1%, or 2% cow’s milk or plain fortified soy beverage can be provided to children. Other plant-based beverages such as almond, coconut or rice beverages do not have enough protein, fat, orcarbohydrate that most children need for growth and development so they are not suitable for children under 2. Some plant-based beverages can be high in manganese, which may be harmful to toddlers and children. Talk to your health care provider for the most appropriate beverages for children.

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