Should You Go Dairy-Free? Milk and the Moo-Less Lowdown


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Does milk do a body good?

For vegans, anyone with a milk allergy, or any of the 30 to 50 million lactose-intolerant Americans, the answer is a resounding “no”  Many people have also turned to nondairy options based on the various health benefits of certain milk alternatives, or simply because variety truly is the “spice of life.”

No longer the exclusive domain of small health food stores, nondairy beverages from soy to grain to nut milks are readily available at your local supermarket. Each with its own distinct flavor, color, texture, and nutritional profile.

The moo-less lowdown

Soy milk was the first milk alternative to appear on supermarket shelves approximately 20 years ago, and it’s been the leader in nondairy beverages ever since. Soy milk, extracted from the whole soy bean, has a fat and protein content similar to 1 percent cow’s milk (see chart below) and is rich in plant sterols called phytoestrogens.  Although the health benefits of soy are somewhat controversial, “Some studies show the phytoestrogen component in soy milk may help protect bone health and prevent bone loss,” says Kelly Morrow, M.S., R.D., adjunct faculty member in nutrition at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.

Flavors such as chocolate soy may sound tempting, but be aware: added sweeteners also up the calorie count. Since the flavor and consistency of even plain soy milk varies from brand to brand, experiment to find your favorite. And, if possible, always choose organic to avoid pesticide residues and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Of the grain milks, rice milk, with its light, sweet taste is a favorite among consumers. Particularly appealing to people who suffer from food allergies (since rice is often well-tolerated over many other options), rice milk is naturally low in fat, but also low in protein, and high in carbohydrates/sugar, with over three times the amount found in unflavored soy or almond milk.

Other grain milk options include fiber-rich oat milk and multi-grain blends. These milks are higher in protein than rice milk, but have a similar carbohydrate count, also making them high in overall calories.

“One of the problems with some of the nondairy milks is the sugar [carbohydrate]content,” Morrow says. “Think of it this way: each 5 grams of carbohydrate equals 1 teaspoon of sugar. Rice milk and certain other milks can have as much as 30 grams of carbohydrates per cup. For comparison, cow’s milk has about 12 grams per cup.” Additionally, the low protein content is of particular concern for growing children and adolescents, Morrow warns, and no nondairy product should ever be used to replace breast milk or infant formula.

Almond milk, the king of the nut milks, is low in overall calories, a rich source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and has a delicate, nutty flavor. Almonds are naturally high in calcium and vitamin E, but lose their nutritional punch when processed and diluted to make milk. To up its nutrient profile, almond milk is usually fortified with vitamins and calcium.

What’s in a glass?

Here’s how the alternatives stack up.*
Low-fat cow’s milk is included for comparison.

Comparison chart, per cup, all plain (unflavored) varieties

Type        Calories        Total Fat        Carbohydrates        Protein

Soy             100                4 g                    8 g                    7 g
Almond        60                3 g                    7 g                    1 g
Rice             130              2 g                   27 g                    1 g
Oat               130             2.5 g                 24 g                    4 g
Multi-grain    160              2 g                  30 g                    5 g
Low-fat         100              2.5 g               12 g                     8 g

*Nutritional information will vary due to brand and ingredient variables

Hazelnut is another popular nut milk option. Both work well in baked goods, desserts, and smoothies.

If you wish to cook or bake with milk alternatives, they can be substituted for milk on a one-to-one basis. Most nondairy milks come in a choice of flavors, including plain, vanilla, and chocolate. With the exception of certain desserts (where you want the added flavor), it’s generally best to use the unflavored version for cooking or baking. But check the level of sweetness because many milk alternatives have added sweetener that could affect the taste and outcome of your recipe.

Final advice? Read labels. “Nondairy milks are naturally low in calcium, vitamin D, and other vitamins, says Morrow. “So choose fortified.” An additional caveat:  Shake the carton well.  “Up to 80 percent of the added calcium can be left in the bottom of the carton; particularly with rice and soy milk,” she adds.  “Make sure you shake it each time before your pour.”

By Vonalda M. Utterback, C.N.

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