Blog Post

Plant-Based Milk: A Dietitian’s Guide

Dairy milk is still the most widely consumed variety of milk, but the plant-based milk industry is growing, and it’s growing fast.

Plant-based milk has expanded from just soy, almond, and coconut. You can now get milk made from cashews, hemp, oats, rice, quinoa, and sesame among so many other things. 

Cow’s milk is often the benchmark that we compare other milk to as it is a good source of several nutrients including calcium, protein, vitamin A, B12, and iodine. 

It is incredibly difficult to find a plant-based milk option that ticks all of these nutrient boxes. However, you should definitely be at least looking for a milk option that is rich in calcium. 

Calcium in Plant-Based Milk

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body with 98% found in the bones, 1% in teeth, and 1% in other tissues. As well as building and maintaining strong bones, calcium is needed for muscle contraction, nerve function, and blood clotting.

If you don’t get enough calcium from your diet for these functions, calcium will be drawn from your bones. Over time this leads to thinning of the bones and may result in osteoporosis.

Vitasoy milk nutrition information panel

Since dairy is a predominant source of calcium in the diets of so many people, if you are switching out dairy milk for a plant-based alternative, it should also be a good source of calcium. 

I have a pretty simple rule when it comes to calcium fortification of plant-based milk:

Look for milk that contains at least 120mg of calcium per 100mls. 

You can find this in the nutrition information panel. If calcium is not listed, it is highly likely that the milk is not fortified.

You can also check the ingredient list as calcium will also be listed there. However, not all kinds of milk are fortified to the same level so checking that nutrition information panel is the best way to make sure you are making a good choice.

In my experience, most major plant-based milk brands are calcium-fortified and are a good replacement for dairy milk.

Although you do need to be mindful that many smaller brands, organic options, and barista-style milks are not fortified. 

A good example is the very popular, Bonsoy soy milk. Interestingly, you will notice that calcium is listed in the nutrition information panel but it falls very short of the 120mg/100ml rule. 

That is because the calcium in the milk is simply what is naturally occurring in soy. If you check the nutrition information panel, it is not fortified.

Other brands that do not fortify their milk options include Milk Lab and Pure Harvest. 

Calories in Plant-Based Milk

The calorie content of plant-based milk varies widely from around 30kcals per cup up to 150kcals per cup. 

But this is also true of dairy milk. Skim milk options typically contain ~40kcals per cup whilst full cream contains ~150kcals per cup. With a whole range of options in between. 

Your choice of plant-based milk should just be whatever aligns with your goals. 

If you were previously using skim milk for weight management or during a phase of weight loss, it may make sense to go for a lower calorie plant-based option such as almond milk.

Alternatively, if you were using full cream milk because you have higher caloric needs or are trying to gain weight, opting for a higher calorie option such as soy, coconut or oat milk might be the way to go.

Otherwise, if you don’t drink a lot of milk daily or if the calorie content of the milk doesn’t matter to you, just go with what you enjoy. No need to overthink it.  

Protein in Plant-Based Milk  

Plant-based milks are often not great sources of protein.

In fact, one of the only higher protein plant-milks is soy milk. Nut and grain-based milks are usually poor sources of calcium with <2g per cup. As opposed to dairy and soy milk which contain ~8g per cup. 

However, you can get plant-based milks other than soy that are fortified with soy or pea protein isolate which boosts their protein content to match or even exceed regular dairy milk. 

If dairy milk was a significant source of protein in your diet before swapping to plant-based milk, it may be good to consider the protein content of your new choice of milk.

For most people, I would say that the protein content of your choice of milk doesn’t really matter that much as long as you are getting enough protein through other sources.

On the other hand, for those with high protein requirements, it might be best to choose a higher protein option. 

Other Fortification  

Outside of calcium fortification, some brands opt to further fortify their products to be closer to the nutrient profile of dairy milk.

Fortification with vitamin D, iodine, or B12 is definitely a plus when it comes to plant-based milks. 

In Australia, the brand, So Good is one of the best options for all-round nutrient fortification. 

So good milk

These nutrients are tricky to get on a vegan or plant-based diet, so should be even more of a consideration if you avoid animal products altogether.

However, if you are still consuming other animal products such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and other dairy products, it isn’t something that you really need to worry about.

Summary 

For the most part, don’t overthink your choice of plant-based milk. Generally, going with what tastes the best to you is probably the most sustainable option. 

But whether your choice of milk is almond, soy, oat, or anything else, I would go an extra step to make sure it is calcium-fortified with at least 120mg/100mls. 

Bonus points if it is a higher protein option (>5g per cup) and is fortified with other nutrients such as iodine, B vitamins, and vitamin D.

Plant based milks nutritional information
By Leah Higl

Leah is an accredited practising dietitian from Brisbane. She also competes as an under 75kg powerlifter with Valhalla Strength Brisbane. As both an athlete and dietitian, she spends much of her time developing her knowledge and skills around sports nutrition, specifically for strength-based sports. Although, she works with a range of athletes from triathletes to combat sports and powerlifting. Leah also follows a plant-based diet and her greatest passion is fuelling vegan/vegetarian athletes and proving that plant-based athletes can be just as competitive as their non-vegan counterparts.​