Soymilk is different from the nut milks
More Americans than ever are drinking plant milks. As cow’s milk consumption drops and milks made from soybeans, almonds or coconut gain in popularity, the dairy industry is reacting. Their recent effort to limit the term “milk” to secretions from cows is part of a strategy to protect the industry’s market. Dairy farmers say that allowing other beverages to be called milk is misleading, causing consumers to believe that plant milks and cow’s milk have similar nutritional profiles.
It’s a weak argument. There is no evidence that consumers equate plant milks with cow’s milk. In fact, just the opposite is probably true. One factor driving people away from cow’s milk to plant-based options is a negative perception of the health aspects of cow’s milk.
Cow’s milk is valued largely for its calcium content, but most plant milks are fortified with this nutrient to similar levels. (Both cow’s milk and plant milks depend on fortification for vitamin D.)
Protein is a different story. Unless they are fortified with protein, milks made from nuts are extremely low in this nutrient. In contrast, soymilk rivals cow’s milk since it is rich in high-quality protein. It also provides healthy fats and a variety of vitamins and minerals, including iron, which is absent from cow’s milk.
Nut milks tend to be low in nutrition overall. The nutrients they provide come almost exclusively from the fortificants (vitamin D, calcium, etc.) added to them because they contain very little in the way of nuts. For example, a cup of almond milk contains the equivalent of just four almonds. The reason unsweetened almond milk is so low in calories is because it contains so few almonds!
Anyone looking for the heart-healthy benefits associated with tree nuts won’t get them from drinking commercial nut milks. On this one issue, the dairy industry is right: Consumers do need to know what they are purchasing and also need to know how different plant milks fit into overall dietary patterns.
For those who are limiting intake of animal foods, particularly families with children, soymilk is an especially good choice for ensuring adequate intake of high-quality protein. In fact, since intriguing research suggests the protein RDA may actually be too low for most population groups, the protein content of the different non-diary milks is probably an important consideration for just about everyone.
If the main use of plant milks is an alternative to cow’s milk in baking or to wash down the occasional cookie, milk is milk and one can choose whichever meets their own personal preferences. But if nutritional content is paramount, soymilk is clearly different from the nut milks.