Milk Alternatives: A HealthCentral Explainer

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Non-dairy milk alternatives are a thriving business. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that U.S. sales of almond, rice and coconut milks are projected to hit $1.7 billion by 2016. Today, these milks are often fortified with vitamins and minerals to help increase their nutritional value against old-fashioned cow’s milk.

While non-dairy milks are a great option for people with lactose intolerance, casein allergies, or vegan lifestyles, should everyone else make the switch? This nutritional analysis of the popular choices may help you decide.

Soy

Unsweetened soy milk contains the most protein out of all the non-dairy alternatives—and matches cow’s milk—at 8g per cup. It contains less sugar and carbohydrates than cow’s milk and is a great source for vitamin B12 (50 percent daily value) and phosphorus (25 percent daily value). It’s also surprisingly high in potassium, almost matching cow’s milk, at 370mg per serving.

Soy milk is made from soybeans, which are a type of legume. All legumes and whole grains contain phytic acid. But soy contains a particularly high amount of phytic acid. Why does it matter? Because phytic acid binds with certain minerals in the intestinal tract and can—when consumed in large amounts—limit their absorption as a result. Previous studies have shown high phytic acid consumption can limit the absorption of calcium, iron, and zinc in humans. So, if you’re going to drink soy milk, do so  in moderation to get the benefits without experiencing these consequences.

It’s also worth noting that soy is one of the top genetically engineered crops in the U.S.  According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of all U.S soybeans in 2014 were genetically engineered to withstand specific herbicides that would normally destroy the crop.  So if you’re concerned about consuming genetically modified products, stick to organic soy milk.

Soy has been associated with certain types of breast cancer risks because of its isoflavones that can increase estrogen levels by binding to and mimicking estrogen receptors in the body. But before you go chucking all soy-based food from your pantry, know that research is mixed on this finding. More studies are needed to better understand this potential relationship.

“Because the research on soy and breast cancer is mixed, many of the doctors I work with still encourage consumption by everyone,” explains Carmen Roberts, a registered dietitian. For the record, the American Cancer Society says eating soy in moderation is fine.

Almond

As word about the possible negative effects from soy milk has spread, almond milk has stepped up to lead the non-dairy charge. And it’s easy to see why: It has zero saturated fat, is high in vitamin E (50 percent daily value), and is lower in carbohydrates and sugar than either soy or cow’s milk. Since most non-dairy beverages are now fortified, almond milk often has more or equal the calcium of cow’s milk.

“Almond milk has the healthy fats that nuts contain, and the unsweetened varieties are low in calories while still providing many vitamins and minerals,” says Roberts.

But where it falls flat is in the protein department. While soy and cow’s milk have 8g, almond has only 1g of protein per cup. This may sound odd because whole almonds are known to be packed with protein. However, the liquid drained from them is mostly water.

Coconut

Coconut milk is made from mature coconut meat. The one thing most people know about coconut milk is its high fat content. One cup of coconut milk can yield up to 48g of fat—although some of this is healthy fat. And, this increasingly popular option has a lot more to offer.

Unlike other non-dairy milks, coconut milk is rich in lauric acid, a medium chain saturated fatty acid (MCFAs) that when converted by the body, produces natural antiviral and antibacterial properties. It’s also abundant in vitamins D, B, and contains antioxidants.

On the other hand, in addition to the high-fat content, coconut milk has about half the protein of soy or cow’s milk and about six times lower calcium levels. You can also purchase manufactured coconut milk that contains significantly lower amounts of fat, but it also strips the milk of some of its other nutritional values, such as protein, iron and vitamin C.

Rice

Rice milk is a good option for people with a broad spectrum of allergies or intolerances, such as people who have the lactose, soy and nut allergy trifecta. However, rice milk—made from partially milled rice and water—pales in nutritional comparison to other milks. It has almost no protein or calcium and—unless generously fortified—lacks vitamins A, D, B and E. Diabetics should avoid rice milk because it’s high in carbohydrates—one cup yields 20g or more. On a positive note, it is extremely low in cholesterol and fat.

Hemp

This lesser-known alternative is made from soaking and grinding hemp seeds in water. Hemp milk contains roughly 3 to 5g of protein per cup, which falls short of either soy or cow’s milk, but is higher than almond, rice or coconut.  Its fat content comprises mostly healthy omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.

Hemp milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D to closely match that of almond or soy. Experts say fortified milks are still healthy. “They are fortified with things that most of us are lacking in our diet: calcium, vitamin D, and—for vegetarians—B12,” explains Roberts.

Protein & Calcium Nutrition in Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milks | Create infographics

The bottom line

Almond and soy seem to have the most nutritional benefits. But should someone opt for non-dairy milks if they don’t have to? “There’s no harm in it at all, and there are many health benefits,” concludes Roberts. “The only negative is that many of these milks are lower in protein than cow’s milk.”

To help counter that, you can supplement other protein sources into your diet throughout the day. Be sure to grab the unsweetened versions. Similar to any food products, keep an eye on the ingredients list before you buy, as many of these alternatives may also contain additives, thickening agents, and sugars. If you’re thinking of switching from traditional dairy milk, talk to your doctor or nutritionist about your reasons and concerns and figure out which (if any) is the best option for you.

Resources

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