Does the milk aisle make your head spin? You are not alone. Milk choices are growing exponentially and it’s hard to keep them all straight. Once praised as a nutritional wonder food, many people are now turning away from traditional cow’s milk. Lactose allergies, antibiotic concerns, and a desire to eat fewer animal products are just some of the reasons for this milk revolution.
Not all milks are created equal. Although advertised as substitutes, their variable nutrition contents, tastes and textures make them virtually different foods. Cow’s milk is often recommended for its naturally high protein and calcium content. Also, the U.S. mandates that most types of cow’s milk are fortified with vitamin D. Milk alternatives may be missing these nutrients yet contain others that are absent in dairy. It’s important to know what you’re drinking to make sure your body is getting everything it needs. Whatever your reason for seeking milk alternatives, here are some facts to help make the decision less intimidating.
Whole cow’s milk has long been a staple of European and American diets. Yet, the low fat movement has caused whole milk to be demonized over the last several decades. Experts are now beginning to change their minds. In 2011, a meta-analysis of 16 studies demonstrated that whole milk consumption was not associated with weight gain. In fact, in several cases it was associated with decreased rates of obesity. If you do choose whole milk, remember to balance its high calorie and fat content with the rest of your diet. Try grass-fed milk to get an extra dose of omega-3 fatty acids which help prevent inflammation and are associated with reduced rates of heart disease.
Calories: 149; Protein: 8grams; Fat: 8grams; Sugar: 13grams; Calcium: 28%; Vitamin D: 24%; Vitamin A: 5%. (USDA average, whole milk with added vitamin D)
This watery milk is popular due to its low calorie and fat content. It is made by extracting the fat from whole cow’s milk. When the fat is removed so is the vitamin A, which is a fat soluble vitamin. Vitamin A is generally added back to skim milk during processing with vitamin D. If you drink skim milk, make sure to consume some fat with your meal to reap the vision strengthening benefits of vitamin A and the bone-building power of vitamin D.
Calories: 83; Protein: 8g; Fat: 0g; Sugar: 12g; Calcium: 31%; Vitamin D: 25%; Vitamin A: 10%. (USDA average, nonfat milk with added vitamins A and D)
This sweet milk is light and creamy. It’s made from ground almonds and water. Almonds are nutritional powerhouses but the health benefits don’t come through in their milk. It’s lacking in protein, calcium and fat so it’s not a very filling drink. This would be a good choice when you are looking to add a bit of creaminess, but don’t need the extra calories. French toast, baking and creamy soups are all great uses for this nutty alternative.
Calories: 60; Protein: 1g; Fat: 3g; Sugar: 7g; Calcium: 2%. (Pacific Organic Almond Original)
Rice milk is such a far cry from dairy milk that it’s often referred to as “rice drink.” It is made from brown rice, rice flour or a combination. This beverage is very thin and slightly sweet. It is a great alternative for those allergic to dairy, soy and nuts. Rice milk is nutritionally lacking so make sure you’re meeting your protein and calcium needs from other foods. Unsweetened rice milk is a good substitute for dairy in cereal, smoothies and mashed potatoes.
Calories: 120; Protein: 1g; Fat: 2.5g; Sugar: 11g; Calcium: 2%. (Rice Dream Original Classic Rice Drink)
Soy novices may be thrown off by its slightly chalky taste, but its body and creaminess make soy milk a good substitute in many recipes. It gets an A+ for nutrition with enough protein and fat to sustain any breakfast eater. It also has the added bonus of magnesium which is important to keep your bones and nervous system healthy. Some people are concerned about the isoflavins in soybeans. Isoflavins are compounds that act similarly to estrogen. However, the good news is that isoflavins in soybeans also have anti-estrogen properties to keep estrogen activity in check. According to the American Cancer Society, human studies have not shown any harmful health effects of eating natural soy foods.
Calories: 90; Protein: 9g; Fat: 4.5g; Sugar: 2g; Calcium: 2%; Vitamin A: 2%. (Pacific Organic Unsweetened Soy Original)
There are two types of coconut milk. The thicker kind in the can lives in the Asian grocery aisle and the kind in the box is located with the rest of the milk. I’ll focus on the boxed kind here, which is watered down and meant to be used as a milk substitute. Coconut milk has a very strong and sweet flavor which would be best in recipes where you want the coconut taste to shine. Coconut milk has a moderate amount of fat (although no protein) to fill you up. Asian stir fries, tropical smoothies and desserts would all be good choices for this sweet beverage.
Calories: 80; Protein: 0g; Fat: 5g; Sugar: 6g; Calcium: 45%; Vitamin A: 10%; Vitamin D: 25%. (Silk Original Coconut Milk)
Note: When analyzing nutrition, I chose popular national brands in “original” varieties. Also, all types reflected here are not fortified or enriched except whole and skim cow’s milk, which have mandated fortification, and coconut milk, because all popular brands were fortified. All quantities refer to 8 fluid ounces.
Here are some general things to keep in mind at the store:
Check your ingredients. There are hundreds of varieties of these beverages and many have unnecessary ingredients. Gums and carrageenan are added thickeners and a myriad of preservatives are used for color and extended shelf life. As a general rule, the fewer ingredients the better. Make sure to scrutinize the ingredient label so you know what you’re eating.
“Original” flavors often contain added sugar. Opt for varieties labeled “unsweetened” instead. Hidden sugars on the ingredient list include brown rice syrup, corn syrup and evaporated cane juice.
Organic is a good choice to avoid consuming pesticides used on the grains and nuts in the milk. Organic soymilk is an especially good choice if you’re concerned about genetically modified soybeans.
Calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D are added to most milk substitutes. However, there is no mandated fortification for milk alternatives. Make sure to check for these essential nutrients on the label or get them from other sources in your diet. Canned salmon is a one-stop-shop as it is a good source of all three of these nutrients.
Now that you have your milk, it’s time to use it! This is great smoothie recipe to try for breakfast. The peanut butter makes it thick and filling while the berries bring the “jelly” flavor with no added sugar. It is already sweet and creamy so any milk would work here.
Emily and Raina’s Peanut Butter and Jelly Smoothie: 12 oz. yield
2 tbsp smooth, no sugar added, peanut butter
½ cup of your favorite milk
½ medium sized banana
1 cup fresh or frozen berries (any kind)
1-2 tbsp unsalted peanuts (optional)
Add all ingredients to blender and blend until “smoothie.” If you use fresh berries, add a few ice cubes before blending.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and is currently a master’s candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and addresses relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.