Fact checked by Nick Blackmer
Of all the plant-based milk on the market, nutrition experts say soy milk is the closest alternative to dairy.
Fortified soy milk is the only plant-based milk that fits into the dairy category, according to USDA guidelines.
Both fortified soy beverages and dairy milk are good sources of calcium, protein, potassium, and magnesium.
Dairy contains nutrients like calcium and vitamin D that support your teeth and bones, but if you’re not a fan of dairy, there’s one alternative you can turn to for these nutrients: fortified soy milk.
Soy milk is the only plant-based milk alternative that fits into the dairy category, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means other plant-based milk like almond, oat, hemp, and pea milk don’t count toward the dietary recommendation that calls for three cups of dairy per day.
“Both cow’s milk and soy beverage fortified with calcium are good sources of calcium, protein, potassium, and magnesium,” Connie Weaver, PhD, a distinguished research professor in exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University, told Verywell in an email.
Soy milk is also the only plant-based milk alternative that has been studied to assess how well calcium is absorbed, according to Weaver, who presented on this topic at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE).
The absorption rate of calcium is the same between soy beverages fortified with calcium carbonate and cow’s milk, Weaver said. If a soy beverage is fortified with tricalcium phosphate, the calcium absorption rate is significantly lower but it’s still a good source of calcium, she added.
Nutrition experts say it is important to make sure the soy milk you’re buying is fortified if you’re looking for a dairy alternative.
“Look to see if it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D because some soy beverages are not and you’re not getting any benefit if there’s no fortification,” Sherry Gray, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian and a nutrition educator at the University of Connecticut, told Verywell.
While flavored soy milk contains added sugars, unsweetened soy milk has similar calories, protein, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A to those in cow’s milk, according to Gray.
“Of all the plant milks, soy milk is definitely the closest to dairy,” she said.
Isn’t Soy Milk Ultra-Processed Though?
Soy milk can be considered an ultra-processed food based on NOVA, the main system used to categorize foods by levels of processing. This may be concerning since research has associated ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes.
While NOVA is widely used and many experts agree on the harmful effects of ultra-processed foods, there are debates about whether certain foods—including soy milk—should fall into the ultra-processed food category.
Putting plant-based beverages like soy milk in the same category as candy and soda isn’t an accurate classification, according to B. Pam Ismail, PhD, the founder and director of the Plant Protein Innovation Center and a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota.
Soy milk falls under the category of ultra-processed foods because it has to go through a series of industrial processes, but these processing steps are necessary.
“Processing is necessary to make soy milk safe and nutritious, and it is unlike other ultra-processed foods that are often high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives, which can have negative health implications if consumed excessively,” Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina, told Verywell in an email.
Both Soy and Cow’s Milk Fit Into a Balanced Diet
Choosing between soy milk and dairy milk is ultimately up to your personal preference and lifestyle.
If you’re lactose intolerant or concerned about animal welfare, you may prefer soy milk. However, cow’s milk may be the right choice if you have a soy allergy or simply enjoy the taste of dairy.
Soy milk isn’t a perfect substitute for dairy milk either, according to Ismail. “Nothing is going to replace the experience of dairy. Nothing is going to taste like cow’s milk or give you the exact nutrition or characteristics of cow’s milk,” she said.
There are also debates about the safety of phytoestrogens in soy milk and synthetic hormones (rBGH or rBST) in cow’s milk. Some are worried that phytoestrogens in soy might increase the risk of breast cancer, thyroid conditions, or dementia, although these claims haven’t been proven. Meanwhile, synthetic hormones in cow’s milk may contribute to prostate, breast, or colorectal cancers, but there is not enough evidence to suggest that these pose significant risks for humans.
“Individual preferences, dietary restrictions, and health goals should guide your choice,” Petitpain said. “The key is to prioritize variety and moderation in your diet, incorporating a mix of plant-based and animal-based foods to ensure a well-rounded intake of essential nutrients.”
What This Means For You
Both cow’s milk and fortified soy milk are good sources of calcium, protein, potassium, and magnesium. Among all the plant-based milk alternatives, soy milk is the only one that fits into the USDA's dairy category.
Read the original article on Verywell Health.