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Plant Milks: Seeking — and Finding — Worthy Alternatives to Dairy

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on April 18th, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

Cow’s milk not only tastes great poured over morning cereal or into a cup of coffee, it’s also an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals. And as long as it’s organic, you don’t have to worry about synthetic growth hormones, because organic standards prohibit their use in livestock. But if you’re avoiding cow’s milk because of health reasons such as lactose intolerance or because you are vegan and don’t consume any animal products, there are suddenly a lot of plant-based milk options available that stand in as good alternatives, both taste-wise and nutrition-wise.

In the refrigerator section at my local grocery store, right next to the dairy, I can now pick up almond milk, soy milk, or coconut milk. I can choose between sweetened and unsweetened and chocolate, vanilla, and plain. And if I care to look in the aisles, I can also find rice, hazelnut, oat, and hemp milks. What a change from 20 years ago, when I would have had to trek to a natural foods store for even just a few of these options! And what a testament to America’s changing dietary habits.

Nutrition facts: Cow’s milk vs. plant milk

Like cow’s milk, you can rely on most plant milks to provide key everyday nutrients, particularly calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Calcium, as you probably know, is essential to good overall health, particularly for building and maintaining strong bones. And the body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vitamin B12 plays a critical role in the functioning of the brain and nervous system, and in the formation of blood. A cup of cow’s milk has almost a third of the daily calcium recommended for adults aged 19-50 and a sixth of the recommended daily intake for vitamins D and B12. Most plant milks are fortified so that they contain at least as much of these three nutrients, as well as some others like vitamin A. Be aware, though, that a few plant milks do not provide significant amounts of these nutrients.

A good rule of thumb is to always check the nutritional facts box, because amount of calories, proteins, sugars, and fats can also be highly variable.

  • Calories: Cow’s milk has 86 (nonfat) to 150 (whole) calories per cup, while plain plant milks range from 35 to 130 calories per cup.
  • Proteins: Soy milk has almost as much protein as the 8 grams in a cup of cow’s milk, but other plant milks have significantly less, including some almond, rice, and coconut milks that have just 1 gram.
  • Sugars: Each cup of cow’s milk has 12 grams of naturally occurring sugars, while the sugar content of plant milk can be as small as 0 grams in unsweetened varieties. On the other end of the range, flavored plant milks, particularly chocolate, often have added sugars that boost the sugar content above 20 grams per cup.
  • Fats: When it comes to fat, all milks except for nonfat cow’s milk contain some. The fat content of soy, rice, and almond milks is usually close to that of lowfat cow’s milk, about 3 grams per cup, while coconut and hemp milks typically have more, about 5 to 6 grams, but not as much as the 8 grams in whole cow’s milk.

Here’s a quick overview of the main types of plant milks.

Soy milk

One of the first widely available alternatives to dairy, soy milk is currently the most popular type of plant-based milk. Options abound in the refrigerator case and the grocery aisle. Soy milk is generally valued for its high protein content and thick, creamy consistency, but it can also be bitter or chalky, particularly when unsweetened.

In terms of breast cancer risk, the jury is still out on soy consumption. Soy contains isoflavones, which can act like estrogen in the body. But it also contains proteins that can help maintain normal cell growth and activity. Studies have been inconclusive on whether soy increases risk of breast cancer recurrence in survivors. Until the issue becomes clearer, many doctors recommend that women who take hormonal therapy medicines or who were diagnosed with estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer avoid highly concentrated soy supplements (such as those found in powders and capsules) because of their high isoflavone concentrations. In general, though, it is fine to consume moderate amounts of soy foods, such as soy milk, edamame (soy beans), and tofu (1/2 to 1 1/2 cups), as part of a balanced diet.

Almond milk

The popularity of almond milk is growing fast, and it is not hard to see why. It has a light flavor and nice creamy consistency and is both low in calories and high in nutrients, particularly antioxidant vitamin E. While most almond milks on the market have just 1 gram of protein per cup, some are supplemented to contain up to 5 grams. Anyone drinking this should be aware that if you are allergic to almonds, you will also be allergic to almond milk.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk has been available for a long time, but it is new to the refrigerator case. It has a light but not overpowering coconut flavor and a consistency like low-fat cow’s milk. There is saturated fat in coconut milk, but some of it is made up of medium-chain fatty acids, which research suggests may increase the metabolism and benefit immune function.

Hemp milk

Hemp milk may be the least familiar dairy alternative. It comes from Cannabis sativa L, the same plant harvested for marijuana, but it is made from the seeds, which don’t contain any THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component of marijuana. Nevertheless, hemp cannot be farmed in the United States, so the hemp in American-sold hemp milk is usually farmed in Canada. One of hemp milk’s big selling points is that it’s naturally rich in omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.

Rice milk, oat milk, and hazelnut milk

Rice milk has a thin consistency and pleasant sweet overtones that many people enjoy. Oat and hazelnut milks are both smooth and lightly nutty in flavor. All are good options and available at many grocery stores.

Which one is right for me?

By experimenting, you can discover which plant milks you like and have fun exploring how they make your food and drinks more interesting. I’ve found that I like the nice light taste and natural sweetness of unsweetened rice milk. On the other hand, I find hemp milk a bit dull and swampy. Soy milk has slightly chalky quality and a nutty flavor that I’m still getting used to. And while I can’t taste the almond flavor in almond milk, I still like it. You many prefer different milks for different purposes. Some people like almond milk straight, soy milk with their cereal, and rice milk in green smoothies. I have a colleague who loves coconut milk in her coffee every morning.

Besides taste, special health concerns may guide your selection, too. If you’re a vegan, it’s probably best to pick a plant-based milk with high levels of vitamin B12. If osteoporosis is a concern, choose a plant milk that gives you the most calcium. If you’re trying to lose weight, the unsweetened varieties provide lots of flavor for very few calories.

I’ve found that a lot of people are interested in trying dairy alternatives but most don’t have very much experience with them. How about hosting a tasting with friends to learn together? Pick up a selection of different plant milks and see how they compare. If you figure out which one is best for dunking cookies, or any other useful tips or information, please let us know!

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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