This article appears in May-June Family magazine.

Move over dairy: Plant-based alternatives like almond, soy, rice and oat milks now make up 15 percent of the milk market, according to the Plant Based Food Association. Sales of dairy milk fell by about $1.1 billion in 2018, with net sales totalling $13.6 billion, compared to 2017’s $14.7 billion, according to the Dairy Farmers of America.

All these choices add up to confusion for some consumers.

“There are many issues to think about when deciding on a milk choice for your family. We are essentially the only species on the planet that knowingly and purposefully drinks the milk of another species, even going so far as to breed cows to produce high amounts of milk for humans to consume,” said Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian and adjunct assistant professor at UCLA Medical Center Fielding School of Public Health.

Nutrition profiles

When choosing milk or milk alternatives for their families, parents need to think about things like nutritional impact (calories, protein, types of fat) as well as endogenous hormones in the product.

“Many people wrongly fear phytoestrogens in soy products when I believe they should be more fearful of the higher amounts of analogous estrogen in cow’s or goat’s milk,” Hunnes said. “Because these are animals, their estrogen is basically the same as our own and behaves the same way in our bodies whereas the phytoestrogens do not.”

Affordable and easily available, traditional milk offers a unique nutritional profile with nine essential nutrients: calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin and niacin, said registered dietitian Jean Ragalie-Carr, president of the National Dairy Council. Eight ounces of milk has 8 grams of protein regardless of whether it’s no-fat, whole or even flavored, Ragalie-Carr said.

Without drinking milk, a regular diet is often incapable of providing the necessary amount of calcium, potassium and vitamin D recommended by U.S. dietary guidelines for children and adults, Ragalie-Carr said.

The environmental impact and ethical side of how dairy cows are raised are other considerations, said Hunnes, who has chosen soy milk, almond milk and coconut milk for her family. Soy milk is a favorite because it contains a lot of protein but no added sugar.

Through the years, the healthfulness, nutritional profile and taste has improved, which has helped push people in the direction of milk alternatives, Hunnes said.

“When I stopped drinking cow’s milk in 2001, there were only two brands of soy milk on the market and no almond milk,” she said.

The major differences are protein content, sugar content and other trace minerals, Hunnes said. Oat milk has a little more protein than cashew, almond or coconut milk and a little naturally occuring sugar. Some people find unsweetened cashew and almond milks more watery, Hunnes said. Hemp and rice milks usually have added calcium and sometimes added sugar to make them comparable calcium-wise to cow’s milk, Hunnes said. Pea milk is a newer plant-based beverage made from pea protein.

What’s the difference in 1 cup?

- Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein, 12 grams of sugar, 300 mg of calcium, some phosphorus and other trace minerals.

- Unsweetened organic soy milk contains 7 grams of protein, less than 1 gram of sugar, often 300-400 mg of calcium, some phosphorus and other trace minerals.

- Unsweetened cashew or almond milk frequently contains less than 1 gram of protein, less than 1 gram of sugar, phosphorus and trace minerals. It is not naturally a good source of calcium but many varieties are supplemented with calcium and vitamin D.

- Coconut milk (the kind in the refrigerator aisle) tends to be low in protein and if unsweetened will also be low in sugar. It usually has calcium and other minerals.