MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Visit the milk aisle these days, and you’ll see all kinds of options: Almond, soy, coconut, rice. Those drinks now make up 15 percent of the milk market, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.

That has Jim from Fridley wanting to know: What’s the difference between them?

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“Nutritionally, they’re very different from regular cow’s milk,” Deb Sheats, director of dietetics program at St. Catherine University, said.

Sheats says the biggest difference starts with protein. There are eight grams per serving for cow’s milk and six grams for soy. Compare that to one gram for almond and rice and zero grams for coconut and oak.

“Soy is the one that’s closest to regular cow’s milk in terms of nutritional value,” Sheats says.

Sheats says cow’s milk is a better nutritional choice over the alternatives, given the levels of protein as well as other vitamins and minerals.

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“They are not adequate for children in terms of growth and development and really should not be substituted for cow’s milk,” she says.

Cow’s milk is fortified with Vitamins A and D. Most of the plant-based, non-dairy alternatives are fortified with those vitamins as well as calcium and phosphorus. Some also add sweeteners or thickeners.

Sheats says there are legitimate reasons to use milk alternatives, such as milk allergies, taste preferences or calorie counts.

Rice milk is considered one of the least allergenic, but has the most carbohydrates. Unsweetened almond milk has the fewest calories.

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There is intense debate about whether these drinks should even be allowed to be called milk. The FDA is deciding whether to update its rules and getting lobbied hard from both dairy and plant-based groups.

Heather Brown