Best known for bone-boosting calcium and vitamin D, milk and fortified plant-based beverages sometimes called ‘mylks’ also provide protein, carbohydrate, fat and other vitamins and minerals. An average 8-ounce serving of 2% dairy milk supplies about 130 calories, 9 grams of protein and 20 grams of carbohydrate. All cow’s milk produced on Canadian farms is free from added hormones. Look for the 100% Canadian Milk or Dairy Farmers of Canada symbol on the package to confirm it is from Canadian farms and has not been imported.
The most recent version of Canada’s Food Guide, released in 2019, recommends making water your drink of choice. Even so, Health Canada considers milk a valuable source of protein and nutrients. In the Guide, milk is included with other plant and animal foods in the protein category that should make up approximately one quarter of a well-balanced ‘plate’ together with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. For their calcium, potassium and magnesium content, milk products are also encouraged in the healthy DASH Diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.
Not That Long Ago
For many, it won’t seem long ago that when you went to the store to pick up milk, the main options were whole milk (3.25%), 2%, 1% or skim milk. The percentages reflect the amount of milk fat (% mf) or butterfat (% bf) in the bottle or carton. Those interested in reducing fat and calorie intake often opt for skim or 1% while those wanting a richer taste or higher fat content frequently choose whole milk. For children under age 2, it remains important to choose whole milk for its higher fat content.
In addition to regular dairy milk, there were initially a few other choices for allergies and intolerances with the availability of goat’s milk and lactose-free milk. Chocolate milk has long been an option too – and one marketed as a good sports recovery beverage for kids. However, it is much higher in sugar than white milk, so making your own lower-sugar version is advised for those who enjoy chocolate milk occasionally. And there is still powdered milk, once a budget-friendly staple and option for those with limited refrigeration space.
Although common in China starting 2000 years ago, soy milk initially became an option in the 1980s in North America for those allergic to milk protein, intolerant to lactose or following a vegetarian diet. It’s made from soy beans and is plant-based. Original versions of soy milk were similar in calories to dairy milk but much lower in protein, calcium and vitamin D until they began to be fortified with these nutrients.
A Rapidly Expanding Category
Today, the milk category reflects tremendous innovation, not only in types of milk and plant-based beverages , but in formats ranging from glass bottles and cartons to UHT (ultra-high temperature) shelf-stable options. Milk or plant-based beverages are not only in the refrigerated dairy aisle, but also in the non-perishable natural foods grocery aisle, the beverage aisle and other sections of the store.
The reason why you’re buying milk or plant-based beverages – for example, to feed growing children, to try a new vegan recipe, or to simply add to your coffee – will determine which product. If choosing a plant-based, non-dairy milk as a protein, calcium, vitamin A and D source, check the Nutrition Facts table on the label. Determine that the one you select is a suitable replacement for dairy milk. Some have been fortified by adding nutrients while others lack nutritional balance.
Today’s Milk Options
Milk is an example of a grocery store category that is exploding in response to consumers who aren’t only looking to quench their thirst but for specific functionality in their milk that relates to their overall lifestyle. Some of the options currently available in addition to dairy milk include:
Soy Beverage– available in plain/original and various flavours. Read labels and opt for the lowest sugar choice.
Almond Beverage – the first nut-based beverage to become mainstream. Choose one that is fortified with added nutrients; otherwise it can simply be almond-flavoured water. Almonds are the most widely consumed nut and are naturally a great source of vitamin E.
Coconut Beverage – traditionally used in Thai and other South East Asian cuisines, coconut beverage is significantly higher in fat and calories than cow’s milk. It supplies vitamins and minerals but not in the same ratios to make it a suitable replacement for drinking dairy milk.
Hemp Beverage and Cashew Beverage – nut beverage options that are becoming more popular. Read labels as there can be significant nutrient differences across brands.
Oat Beverage – Oat beverage shows promise for its health-promoting plant chemicals, fibre and nutrients. One cup of fortified oat beverage provides about 110 calories, 4 grams of protein, 18 grams of carbohydrate and 2 grams of fibre.
Potato Beverage – Touted as a very eco-friendly option for using less water and generating less carbon dioxide than other plants based beverages, potato beverage is another allergen-friendly option that we may begin seeing on store shelves. There are recipes online for making potato beverages at home. Although it can be tasty and even creamy, without being fortified, it won’t replace the calcium and vitamin D of dairy or plant beverages that have had those nutrients added.
Cow’s Milk – still available in whole, 2%, 1%, skim and lactose-free. Individual portions also come in flavours like plain, chocolate, orange, banana and strawberry. Whether dairy milk or plant-based beverage, the addition of fruity or chocolate flavours generally makes the product way higher in sugar and something that should be reserved for occasional treats only.
Goat’s Milk – available in 1%, 2% and 3.5%. Nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.
And There’s More
Not yet widely available, but starting to pop up are other nut or seed-based beverages including peanut, sesame, flax, sunflower, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut and tiger nut along with drinks from quinoa, corn, spelt, teff, amaranth and other grains. We may also soon see a lupin beverage, from the Latin American legume. None of these currently fully replicate the texture, appearance, flavour and nutritional value of dairy milk. One challenge for innovative manufacturers will be countering the beany flavour of some milks. However, as fibre– and nutrient-rich pulse flour and other legume-based foods continue to become more mainstream, people’s palates will acclimate to these flavours. For Canadian grain, legume and seed farmers, the future in the plant-based beverages category shows great promise.
Variety, moderation and balance are three healthy eating principles that have stood the test of time and scientific rigor. Just like many of us have a variety of cooking oils on hand in our pantry, it is increasingly common to have a variety of milks and plant-based beverages on hand as well.