Vitamin D: is cow, soy, almond or rice milk better?

A new study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that children aged 1-7 years that were drinking non-cow’s milk beverages (such as soy, rice, almond milk) had lower levels of serum vitamin D than kids that drank cow's milk. What the study has highlighted was that while the fortification of vitamin D in cow’s milk is regulated in Canada, milk alternatives like soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, goat’s milk are not.  Most alternative milk manufacturers however, are fortifying their products with both vitamin D and calcium, but most are not putting in as much as is in regular cow’s milk.

healthy milk, soy milk, cow's milk, rice milk

Vitamin D Facts

Just to review:  Vitamin D is helps the absorption of calcium in the gut.  It is also needed for bone growth.  It has been associated with other benefits such as resistance to some chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases and immunity and muscle strength.  However more research needs to be done in these areas to really see what, if any, connection between these and vitamin D.

We are supposed to get 600 IU of vitamin D for anyone older than 1 year of age to age 70.  Babies are to get 400 IU and those older than 70 should be getting 800 IU.

The issue for us in Canada is that we don’t get much sun exposure this far north of the equator for large parts of the year.  In fact, recently I found out that my serum levels of vitamin D were low and have had to start vitamin D supplements (the chewy chocolate ones are delicious!).  Also vitamin D isn’t found in many foods: eggs, fish and fortified foods like milk.

What is the healthiest milk?

The interesting part of this study is highlighted when taking a closer look at the Nutrition Facts labels of different milk alternatives.  Many of my clients ask about the health benefits of different milks such as cow vs. almond vs. rice vs. soy milk.  Which one is best?

If a client no longer can drink or chooses not to drink cow’s milk, my preference is soy milk as it tends to have more protein in it than both rice and almond milk.  I also point out that almond milk tends to have to add more fillers and stabilizers (think: “processed”) to make it a proper “milk drink”.  Almond milk in particular as it would be way too high fat if they put in enough almonds in the milk to make it milky.

And then the case for soy milk is even stronger when you look at the vitamin D content.  Cow’s milk contains 45% of your daily vitamin D requirement (up to 400 UI), as does most soy milk products.  However, most almond and rice milks only contain 25%!

Myths and Actual Health Benefits of Soy

I also point out that while some people are concerned about various “reports” of man-boobs and other reproductive issues for both men and women that consume soy products are completely unfounded.  Soy consumption has been associated with all sorts of health benefits including lower levels of prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Recommendations

If you don’t want to drink cow’s milk, soy is the best option.  If you are allergic to soy, then give some of the other alternative milks a try like almond or rice milk.  But beware that you may not be getting the same amount of protein or vitamin D that the other two will be providing.   In that case, a vitamin D supplement of 1000 IU may be in order.   Pay attention to the Nutrition Facts labels to see what you are actually getting as manufacturers of milk alternatives do not need to follow any guidelines as to how much vitamin D they add.

If you want to see the CMAJ article: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/186/17/1287.full.pdf+html