Calcium Absorption: Soy Milk Versus Cow Milk

Calcium Absorption: Soy Milk Versus Cow Milk
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Soy milk should be shaken before pouring to get at the calcium that settles to the bottom.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

When you look at the nutrition facts label on soy milk, it says it has the same amount of calcium as cow milk. But is it absorbed as well?

“Calcium absorption in…osteopenic [meaning low bone mineral density] post-menopausal women: an acute comparative study of fortified soymilk to cows’ milk.” Pretty self-explanatory. What do you think they found? Which works better? Soy milk, calves’ milk, or the same? And the answer is: the same.

There is, however, a caveat. When it comes to soy, you’ve got to shake things up. A prior study found that some of the calcium in soy milk settles to the bottom. So, you really only get the amount it says on the label if you give it a good shake before you pour.

So, when the carton says shake it up, you shouldn’t do it just because the carton says so, or do it because I say so. You should do it because the science says so.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

When you look at the nutrition facts label on soy milk, it says it has the same amount of calcium as cow milk. But is it absorbed as well?

“Calcium absorption in…osteopenic [meaning low bone mineral density] post-menopausal women: an acute comparative study of fortified soymilk to cows’ milk.” Pretty self-explanatory. What do you think they found? Which works better? Soy milk, calves’ milk, or the same? And the answer is: the same.

There is, however, a caveat. When it comes to soy, you’ve got to shake things up. A prior study found that some of the calcium in soy milk settles to the bottom. So, you really only get the amount it says on the label if you give it a good shake before you pour.

So, when the carton says shake it up, you shouldn’t do it just because the carton says so, or do it because I say so. You should do it because the science says so.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Doctor's Note

For more on milk, check out these videos:

My calcium recommendation is to get least 600mg daily via calcium-­rich plant foods—preferably low-­oxalate dark green leafy vegetables, which includes all greens except spinach, chard, and beet greens (all very healthy foods, but not good calcium sources due to their oxalate content). Check out my video Plant vs. Cow Calcium for more.

And for more from a practical perspective, check out my associated blog posts: Soy milk: shake it up and How to Enhance Mineral Absorption.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

50 responses to “Calcium Absorption: Soy Milk Versus Cow Milk

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  1. My calcium recommendation is to get least 600 mg daily via calcium-­rich plant foods—preferably low-­oxalate dark green leafy vegetables, which includes all greens except spinach, chard, and beet greens (all very healthy foods, but not good calcium sources due to their oxalate content). Check out the video Plant vs. Cow Calcium for more.

    And for more from a practical perspective, check out my accompanying blog post Soy milk: shake it up.




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    1. Dear Dr Gregger. If calcium supplements are not good for us, what makes fortified soy milk and orange juice good for us? Isn’t it the same as me grinding my calcium tablet, and pouring some and shaking it into my non-fortified soy milk? And what makes calcium suppleemnt a no-no, but calcium enrished tofu a good option. I am confused. Please let me know. Thank you.




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  2. Do you know the absorption rate of tahini,molasses and almonds?
    And I been told that in sprouted tahini there is disaccharide instead of oxalic acid which improve its absorption rate,is it true?
    Thanks for a good video,I will start shaking it up :)




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    1. Great question sagi! I bet you’d find this article interesting. The tahini calcium absorption would depend on whether the sesame seeds are roasted or raw, and whether the seeds are hulled (anyone know if hulling is typical for commercial tahini production?). Black strap molasses is one of the two sweeteners that’s actually good for you, but unfortunately don’t know about the calcium absorbability. I know almonds though! Between 14 and 21%, about half that of both milks (which are about 30-32%), and less than the superstars, low-oxalate greens (40%+). Never even heard of sprouted tahini, though. Let me know if you can dig up that reference and I’ll take a look at it.




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  3. I appreciate your wanting to be balanced with comparisons. But comparing calcium from a plant to “calcium” from an animal unrelated to humans is one of the most overlooked aspects of studies and conclusions. Its’ like comparing the oils in plants to the lard or animal fat in any animal product. Plant oils are worlds apart from animal fats!!

    Going from a meat-eating diet for the first 34 years of my life into an organic, plant based diet entirely has “spawned” some very incredible, eye opening aha’s around the worlds’ apart nature between plant as food/medicine and animal flesh and products.

    At some point it would be nice to see researchers coming from a place that understands through experience that humans are not meant to be what is being referred to as an omnivore. Good heavens, even Kodiak bears will consume up to 92% of their diet as herbivore and put on pounds of bear fat from that source.

    What is needed is an awakening in America to the complacency people have around taking responsibility for their diseases. Was I the only one that heard…on national news…when the debate was just beginning on health care costs and a national insurance…that over 75% of the health care costs in America are preventable? My life is a living testament to a much higher percentage.

    But thank you and keep up the good work. It is a great service you are providing.




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      1. Is goat cheese, then, no better for one’s health than cheese made from cow’s milk? Some friends of mine seem to think it is. (It may also be that they think the way goats are treated is preferable to the treatment of most dairy cows.)




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  4. What about supplementing with powdered calcium carbonate product mixed into something like tomato juice or other pulpy drink (per the instructions on the label)? If absorption is low, would increasing the intake amount suffice or is there a “law of diminishing returns”? I have kale every morning in my green smoothie, but I also supplement with powdered calcium at night. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Any better suggestions for a supplement?




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    1. Hello David!

      In all honesty, the daily requirement of 1500 mg of calcium per day is extraordinarily high. That “requirement” has a lot of corporate backing to it and we really absorb very little calcium. Dr. McDougall states that “It seems likely that normal people can adapt to have a normal calcium balance on calcium intakes as low as 150-200 mg/day and that this adaptation is sufficient even in pregnancy and lactation.” http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2007nl/feb/whenfriendsask.htm
      Unless you experience starvation, calcium deficiency has actually have ever occurred. This emphasis on calcium is a marketing technique used by the dairy counsel. Dr. McDougall has made the statement that if we actually did absorb all the calcium required by the daily value, our organs would calcify.

      If you are simply worrying about plant calcium vs animal calcium, the bio availability of plant calcium is more easily absorbed than dairy sources http://nutritionfacts.org/video/plant-vs-cow-calcium-2/

      Based on all the evidence presented, it is unnecessary, and a poor use of money to invest in calcium supplementation.




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  5. What are your comments regarding a recent ‘comment’ in youf FB site regarding ‘..cow’s milk will actually cause osteoporosis due to acidifying of the body that ends up depleting calcium from our bones that are released when we drink cow’s milk.’

    Thanks




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  6. Hello,Recent studies, seem to indicate that taking calcium supplements may increase the risk of heart attack. Since soy milk is fortified, which would mean the calcium is not naturally occurring in soy milk, would it not be the same as a supplement?
    was wondering if consuming soy milk (fortified with calcium) is considered the equivalent of consuming supplements.Any studies comparing these alternate methods of supplementation? (fortified vs pills)Thanks,Mihai




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    1. it appears that Mihai’s question was not answered — we shouldn’t take calcium supplements, yet telling us to shake soy milk implies it’s okay to to drink soy milk fortified with calcium?
      could you clarify?




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    1. Hi. I still don’t see the question about whether you’re recommending fortified soymilk and not recommending calcium supplements. They seem like the same thing to me. I have osteopenia, so I need to figure this out. I can’t see going back to dairy, but I also can’t see bone fractures!




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      1. Excellent question! Available peer-reviewed studies suggest a possible increase in heart attack risk in those that supplement with calcium, and also that calcium supplementation does not reduce hip fracture risk. Vitamin D3 supplementation does though to a certain extent, but you can overdo it. In addition, those that ingest animal protein excrete calcium in their urine whereas strict vegans do not, under normal circumstances. Calcium metabolism and sources of bone density problems can go far beyond just calcium and vitamin D though, and include such factors as endogenous steroid hormones, parathyroid hormone, calcitonin, and the list goes on. Drinking milk is likely not the answer, but you should consult with your doctor to make sure you’re covering all possible issues and doing the right thing.

        Best regards,
        Dr. Ben




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    1. Carrageenan is an indigestible family of large molecules obtained from seaweed.
      Large amounts of carrageenan have harmed test animals’ colons; the small amounts
      in food are safe.




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  7. Wondering if you might do a feature on whether or not to take calcium supplements (especially post menopause, elderly etc)? I can’t possibly eat enough volume of plant based food to get the recommended amount. I am taking Vit D3. Why is it humans need to supplement for calcium, when our animal friends don’t (thinking of elephants)?




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    1. The best comprehensive review of the literature is by Amy Lanou in her book, Building Bone Vitality. She reviews over 1200 studies… take home message is that exercise helps, animal products especially dairy are bad and calcium supplementation is not helpful. The best hypothesis is that it is about acid load which is explained nicely in her book. Although Dr. Greger reported on a meta-analysis not supporting this hypothesis… see http://nutritionfacts.org/video/is-protein-bad-to-the-bone/, I am reluctant to put alot of weight in meta analyses due to statistical problems in combining studies. I would recommend that you start by reading John McDougall’s excellent article in his February 2007 newsletter entitled, When friends ask: Where do you get your Calcium. Humans don’t need to take supplemental calcium. Vitamin D is important but best obtained from the sun unless that is not possible. For the complicated issues around Vit D view the excellent series of nine posts by Dr. Greger beginning on December 5, 2011. The medical profession is doing alot of testing and prescribing of Vitamin D. I would refer you to another McDougall article in his March 2011 newsletter entitled Vit D: Values for normal are exaggerated. Dr. Greger did a post which showed omnivores vs vegan on bone density which showed no difference… see http://nutritionfacts.org/video/long-term-vegan-bone-health/. It is all somewhat confusing but stay tuned to NutritionFacts for the latest science. Hope this helps.




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  8. Sesame has 10 times more calcium than any PUS milk –we are not quadrupeds! Dairy is scary/horrific. Tahine, plants, beans, etc. But to help our bones, we also need Vitmanin D, Magnesium and Calcium at ratio of 3:1. I ery often hear that our bones dont need calcium after 21 years old, but they need exercise to be in good shape.




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  9. Does the oxalate in spinach prevent/reduce the absorption of calcium from other greens eaten in the same meal? Do I need to separate my greens into different meals?




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    1. Osteoporotic: I believe I once heard Brenda Davis (famous dietician) answer this question. If I remember correctly, I believe she said it was not a worry. If for example, you eat kale with spinach, you still get all the calcium you would from kale even though you are eating the spinach. Hopefully someone with a more definitive answer will reply, but I thought I would reply now just in case no one else does.




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  10. Hi Dr. Greger, reviewing your website and others (veganrd and vrg.org) it seems like getting calcium in the range of 600 – 1000 mg / day is important. When I look at my own diet, it seems like getting up that high requires a huge amount of greens and/or fortified nut milks (I prefer hemp). The calcium in commercial hemp milk seems to come from calcium triphosphate. If I make my own hemp milk, should I add this compound to it? Does this have the same drawbacks as phosphate preservatives in chicken etc.?




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  11. Hello Dr. Greger, there is some controversy on calcium fortified foods, one of them being that they can lead to heart disease and to soft tissue calcification:http://chriskresser.com/calcium-supplements-why-you-should-think-twice. Being a teenager, one often gets told that we need a lot of calcium. How much do you recommend for me, and is it possible to get enough without supplementing( or without calcium fortified foods)?

    I can’t thank you enough.




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    1. durianmangosteen: I’m glad you mentioned that you are a teen. It’s exciting to me that (at least one anyway) teenager is paying attention to this information.

      You may be interested in Dr. Greger’s Optimal Nutrition Recommendations as shown in this next link. The following page has a section on calcium. Note that the recommendation is to get your calcium from certain foods, rather than fortified foods if possible:
      http://nutritionfacts.org/2011/09/12/dr-gregers-2011-optimum-nutrition-recommendations/

      Also, I thought I would point out that calcium needs are more complicated than “take this number”. I like a point made in the book, “Becoming Vegan: Express Edition” by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. They point out that, “Calcium *balance* is more critical than calcium *intake.*” In other words, it’s not how much calcium you take in that matters, but how much your body keeps over how much it loses. In the end, they recommend that people get the recommended amount of calcium a day (which in their book is 1000 mg). However, I will point out that many people believe that a well balanced whole plant food diet requires less calcium intake than other diets. And even Brenda and Vesanto say, “…some populations who eat less than 400 mg of calcium per day have lower rates of osteoporosis than populations who consume more than 1,000 mg per day.” Given how many of the experts that I really trust all seem to say something different about calcium, it is not clear to me that we/human science have a very good handle on the issue of calcium yet. But everyone agrees that regular weight bearing excercise is important. My (lay person) suspicion is that the weight bearing exercise is more important than a specific calcium intake level – as long as one is following a really good whole plant food based diet. (But again, please note that I’m no expert.)

      Not sure if you will find any of that helpful, but I hope you do. Good luck on your path of healthy eating.




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      1. I can’t thank you enough for dedicating your time to reply to me. Surely this will help on my path to veganism
        Thank you so much!!




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  12. Dr Greger, the main problem with soy milk is that it is fortified with Vitamin D2 instead of D3. D2 is not as shelf-stable as D3 and so the amount present in the Soy Milk may actually be half of what is stated on the label. D3 is what is needed to help bones absorb calcium. Bone-Building is crucial for Children and Women and anyone under age 30 especially to prevent Osteoporosis later in life. Your comments please.




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  13. Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of yours. I tell all my friends to check out your videos, and share a lot of your content on social media. My question is about calcium… I live in Japan, and drink calcium fortified soy milk every morning with my smoothie. I noticed that the ingredients say 炭酸カルシウム which is calcium carbonate. My qusestion is: I calclium carbonate unhealthy because it is not water soluable? Should I be shooting for calcium bicarbonate sources since they are water soluble? Thanks again for all your great videos.




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    1. Marcus: One of my favorite resources for questions like this is “Becoming Vegan Express Edition” by Davis and Melina. It’s not a book you have to read cover to cover. You can look up specific topics and get a nice summary of information about a single nutrient. I understand that the authors do a *whole* lot of research to back up each of their statements and Dr. Greger has spoken highly of the authors in the past. So, I feel comfortable with referring people to this information.

      After seeing your question, I skimmed to see what the book has to say about calcium. I didn’t see anything in particular about “calcium carbonate”, but I did see this statement on page 131: “Calcium is added to fortified nondairy milks and tofu, and in both cases, calcium absorption compared favorably with that of cow’s milk.”

      I don’t know if Japan uses a different type of calcium than what the authors have reviewed, but I’m thinking that you are are OK with your fortified soy milk. (I’m not an expert, so take that statement for whatever it is worth.) If you are interested in the book I am referring to, check out:
      http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Vegan-Express-Plant-based-Nutrition/dp/1570672954/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1440622884&sr=8-1&keywords=becoming+vegan+express+edition

      Hope that helps.




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  14. Recently I watched a programme on the BBC (UK: “Food: Truth
    or Scare”) about the benefits of cow’s milk as opposed to plant-based
    alternatives, and an expert gave her opinion on the matter by saying that cow’s
    milk is full of nutrients, especially protein and calcium, and it also has a
    particular advantage in that the fat (in whole and semi-skimmed) aids
    absorption of the nutrients, unlike the plant-based alternatives. So cow’s milk
    is a much better source of calcium and other nutrients than soya, almond or
    other alternative milks, because it is richer in nutrients, and they are better
    absorbed.

    This seemed incorrect and misleading to me, so I submitted a
    complaint to the BBC, saying that the expert (Linia Patel) was entitled to her
    opinion, but other bodies of research, such as the China Study by T. Colin
    Campbell, should also have been mentioned to provide a balanced overview of the
    issue.

    The BBC’s response included the following:

    All the information in the film was sourced, checked and verified, and reflects the
    official NHS guidance…( )

    The overwhelming body of research points to the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk,
    whereas there is limited research claiming cow’s milk is dangerous. Indeed, the
    NHS recommends that a Swedish study which suggested milk was linked to early
    death should be treated with caution.

    Linea Patel is a highly qualified dietician and nutritionist (with, amongst other
    professional qualifications, an MSc in Human Nutrition from Kings College
    London), as well as a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

    In other words, the BBC’s response is to dismiss research such as the
    China Study as representing a minority and extreme point of view.

    I would like to reply to the BBC regarding this point, but I have to
    admit I don’t actually know how to summarise the current consensus of research
    on milk. I know that the China Study is the largest piece of research ever carried out in the field of epidemiological nutrition,
    but not how to sum up the overall pro vs contra balance.

    I would be very grateful if someone could give me an authoritative
    overview of the current state of research on the health benefits or otherwise
    of cow’s milk. (Has the dairy industry perhaps funded a large amount of
    research to tip the scales and drown out other voices, and would there be any
    way to make this evident?)




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  15. Is oatmeal a good source of calcium? I have read there is something in it that interferes with calcium absorption and that it also affects the absorption of calcium from other foods eaten with the oatmeal, such as calcium fortified non-dairy milk. Any thoughts?




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  16. How are calcium supplements different from calcium fortified Soy/Almond milks? I checked a few popular brands and they use the same form of calcium (Calcium Carbonate)

    If I drink 1 cup of Silk brand Soy milk, I get 475mg of Calcium in the form of Calcium Carbonate. If I take a supplement, I get 500mg (the smallest amount I could find per pill) again in the form of calcium carbonate. Based on this comparison, shouldn’t we just avoid fortified plant based milks as well?




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    1. It would sure be nice to get an answer to this question. I’ve seen it asked several times above with no reply from Dr. Greger or his staff. Why is taking calcium supplements bad…yet drinking them in fortified soy milk is good?




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  17. Hi Suzanne, I am one of the site moderators. Dr. Greger addressed this seeming contradiction in a video you can find here:https://nutritionfacts.org/video/are-calcium-supplements-safe/ In a nutshell the difference is in the heavily concentrated bolus of calcium in a supplement pill floods the bloodstream and initiates several metabolic cascades, most notably blood coagulation which easily leads to a heart attack. This is one of the findings that caused researchers to reverse their recommendation on Calcium supplements to not recommended. Obviously we need calcium in our diet and obtaining it via the foods we eat is the safest. Some of those foods that supplement calcium like milk or milk replacements deliver a diluted amount of calcium in the food product so that the body and bloodstream doesn’t see an unnatural spike in this ion which when exposed to blood causes clotting. Interestingly, as a blood banker by training I can attest that the fluid that is in blood donation bags and in blood tubes for testing where blood needs to stay liquid binds up the calcium in the blood so that clotting is inhibited. If you’ve ever given blood or had a test drawn where the blood needs to stay liquid the phlebotomist will be frequently moving the tube or bag around to distribute the anticoagulant because without it the blood immediately clots. So you see if an unnatural amount off Calcium is introduced into the bloodstream it would enhance the natural clotting ability of the blood. Here is a link to the video I mentioned. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/are-calcium-supplements-safe/




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  18. I will try to get a copy of this and read it. The journal strikes me as rather obscure. My concern is that the isotopic Ca absorption may be the same because the same isotope is added to each source of Ca. So if they measured disappearance of isotope from gut or appearance in blood (per volume or per day) the results are not very useful. If they measured the ratio of labeled to unlabeled Ca in either it could be useful, butthen again why not just do a mass balance of Cato measure apparent absorption? It depends how they did their measurements, it could easily be misinterpreted.




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  19. I found and read the paper. How this experiment was done was that exogenous radioactive Ca (as CaCl2) was added with a carrier (undefined) to dairy milk or soy beverage. Blood appearance of label (per ml blood) over time was then used to get a relative value for Ca absorption rate. Based on my experience with marker analysis (I have published in this area and taught it for 33 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) this demonstrates that the exogenously added Ca was absorbed at the same relative rate in the presence of milk and soy beverage. If either the milk or soy beverage contents inhibited or aided this absorption process of the exogenouly added labled Ca, they did so to the same extent. I do not see how this can be taken to mean that the native Ca in milk or the added Ca in the soy beverage (of an unidentified proprietary nature but likely not the same as the carrier or isoptope) are absorbed with the same efficiency.




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