By Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN
Dairy products have long been touted as the gold standard of calcium-rich foods; however, with more attention to food allergies, intolerances, and overall health, the calcium spotlight has moved on. Attention has been refocused on plant-based, calcium-containing foods, and also on the popular and growing group of non-dairy alternatives that in some cases can provide as much as 50% more calcium per serving than a glass of milk… yes, that’s right, more calcium than milk!
June is National Dairy Alternatives Month, so we’re focusing on non-dairy sources for you to get your calcium.
What is Calcium?
One of the most common questions I get asked by clients and Rebooters is regarding the need for dairy products in our diet, “I need to get calcium so I have to eat or drink dairy products, right?”
Calcium is an important mineral that plays a role in bone growth, development and strength, and yes is a key part of a healthy plan. Calcium also plays a key role in nerve conduction, essential for muscle contraction throughout the body. In short, it’s an important nutrient, and yes we must get some of it through our diet; but dairy isn’t the only source of calcium out there.
Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
The dairy alternatives group is a hot and growing new food category, especially in recent times with more attention focused on food allergies and intolerances. What used to be a category primarily consisting of only soy milk, has now blossomed into a huge, and sometimes overwhelming, group of milks, cheese, yogurts, ice creams and more.
Calcium is abundant in many food sources, and though dairy does contain calcium (about 300 mg per 1 cup/250 ml of milk), other calcium-rich foods contain a fair amount of calcium that can help you meet your recommended daily allowance (1000 mg/day for people between the ages of 19 and 50), and guess what? None of them are in the dairy family:
How much calcium do you really need?
When looking for a non-dairy alternative, and if you’re completely dairy-free, it’s important that you pay attention to how much calcium you’re getting everyday (yes men can get osteoporosis too, so guys listen up!).
The daily recommendation from all food sources, supplements, and fortified foods is 1000 mg per day for men and women between the ages of 19-50; once women turn 51, the recommended daily amount is bumped up to 1200 mg/day, and once men and women reach age 71+, the recommended amount for both groups is 1,200 mg per day. HOWEVER, as you might have read in Stacy’s The Truth about Calcium article or Claire’s ‘Why You Don’t Need Milk for Calcium‘ the actual recommendation by the World Health Organization is 500mg but they need to increase and adjust this recommendation to account for the increased calcium losses which is often due to high sodium and processed foods diets (SAD – Standard American/Australian Diet).
When perusing the nutrition label of a non-dairy alternative that may contain calcium, it’s important to look on the label for frequent claims that may say “Contains 50% more calcium than milk,” or simply look on the nutrition label and see that calcium has more than 5% RDA (insert picture)- often non-dairy milks will have as much as 45% RDA (about 450 mg) per 1 cup serving, which is a lot! Identifying claims on the front of the container, or seeking out the nutrition label on the side of the container will help you identify those that are fortified– as they’re not all fortified with calcium.
What about non-dairy milks? Which one is the best?
Another great question that I often get, as there are a plethora of non-dairy milks to choose from, and they all contain slightly different nutrient profiles and nutritional benefits, particularly if you’re making the milk in your home versus purchasing in the store. Homemade milks tend to have more calories and in some cases more micronutrients as commercially made products tend to be more strained, which removes more of the nutrients.
Non-dairy milk options:
All of the milks are delicious! Nutritionally most of them are very similar, particularly if you’re purchasing commercially-made products. It’s important to look for unsweetened varieties (easy to find) to ensure that there isn’t a whole lot of extra sugars and additives. If you’re looking for a source of calcium, other than greens, nuts and other previously mentioned foods, it’s important to look for varieties that are fortified.
Feeling inspired? Try making your own almond/coconut, non-dairy milk at home.
Non-Dairy Alternatives to Look Out For
Test out different varieties of non-dairy milks, cheese, yogurts etc., but be a savvy consumer and read your labels! Make sure you’re getting the most natural and least sweetened product with added calcium (if you’re in need of some extra!).