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The Lowdown on Non-dairy Beverages

Non-dairy beverages are becoming increasingly popular among those with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance, following plant-based diets, or just curious about milk alternatives1. For all types of non-dairy beverages, look for products that are fortified in calcium & vitamin D, which are essential nutrients found in dairy milk. Unsweetened non-dairy beverages are preferred as the added sugar in sweetened beverages contributes additional calories but no essential nutrients.

“Milk” is considered a food that comes from a healthy cow. Milk beverages, on the other hand, resemble cow’s milk in texture and appearance but do not come from a cow or have the same nutrients as cow’s milk. The packaging of a non-dairy beverage may use the term “milk beverage” to differentiate the product from cow’s milk.

Soymilk is the most widely available non-dairy milk and the only non-dairy beverage with enough protein to be considered a nutritionally comparable choice to cow’s milk. The most common flavors are unflavored, vanilla, and chocolate. Only original flavors of soymilk are permitted in schools following CACFP guidelines. Individuals with a soy allergy should avoid soymilk.

Almond and cashew nut milk have gained attention because they are low in calories and fat, and the unsweetened varieties are also low in sugar. There are original and vanilla flavors available, as well as a chocolate-flavored beverage. Unsweetened varieties are ideal as the added sugars in sweetened nondairy beverages are a source of “empty calories” that do not contribute any essential nutrients. Reducing the amount of added sugar in the diet can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain.

Rice milk is the most allergy-friendly non-dairy milk available in sweetened and unsweetened original and vanilla flavors. The texture is fairly watery in comparison to dairy milk. In schools following CACFP, rice milk is used as the alternative to those who cannot drink dairy or soy milk.

Coconut milk comes in two forms: canned and carton. Canned coconut milk is meant for cooking and baking, not drinking. It has a concentrated flavor and a similar texture to heavy whipping cream. Lite and full-fat versions are available, but both varieties are still a substantial source of saturated fat. Saturated fat consumption should be limited because a high saturated fat intake increases the risk of developing heart disease. Use canned coconut milk in moderation in recipes such as creamy soups, curries, and some dairy-free desserts.

Carton coconut milk is meant for drinking but has a distinct taste that may be overpowering for some people. Make sure that the coconut flavor will complement the other flavors of the dish since the flavor will be recognizable. Like almond and cashew nut milk, carton coconut milk comes in sweetened and unsweetened original, vanilla and a chocolate-flavored beverage. While the coconut is classified by the FDA as a tree nut, some individuals with tree nut allergies are able to tolerate coconut. When in doubt, do not serve products containing coconut milk to a child with a tree nut allergy.

Oat milk is popular because it’s creamy and has a minimal environmental impact4. Available flavors include vanilla, original, extra creamy/full-fat, chocolate, and low-fat, all of which are sweetened. Oatly, a popular brand of oat milk, even fortifies their full-fat version with omega-3 DHA, an important nutrient for child growth and development. Oatmilk is not suitable for individuals with a wheat or gluten allergy or celiac disease unless the product is certified gluten-free. While oat milk is delicious, it is expensive, and all varieties contain added sugar.

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