Milk substitutes are a dime a dozen these days. Most stores carry a wide variety of plant-based milks that are completely dairy free and taste pretty darn good, too. But how can you choose which one is best? And are they actually better for you than cow’s milk?
Let’s take a look at some of the health benefits of four milk substitutes, along with some not-so-pretty facts.
Why milk substitutes?
For some people, milk substitutes are a godsend. That’s because some individuals have a problem with milk sugar (lactase) and are lactose intolerance. Others have a milk allergy to the milk protein, called casein.
And for these individuals, it helps to have an alternative for all things dairy. But even if you don’t have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance, you may still want to avoid milk.
According to a functional nutritionist and women’s hormone expert, Alisa Vitti, dairy can harm a woman’s hormonal health in many detrimental ways.
For one thing, the artificial growth hormones and GMO’s in milk can interfere with the body’s natural estrogen production. Milk can also cause inflammation in the digestive system, leading to problems in the menstrual cycle.
Another reason why dairy is problematic for women is that it can lead to magnesium deficiency and interrupt normal pituitary and adrenal gland function.
So, even if you don’t have an allergy or lactose intolerance, cow’s milk can be quite problematic for a woman’s health. Luckily, there are milk substitutes – and lots of them.
And while there are many qualities that make many plant-based milks better than their dairy counterpart, there are still some downfalls. Here’s a closer look at four milk alternatives, along with their pros and cons.
According to a study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, researchers compared cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives, including almond, coconut rice, and soy.
Registered dietitian and nutritionist, Whitney English Tabaie says, “Soy milk contains a wonderful macronutrient profile. One cup has about 7 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber and 4 grams of unsaturated fat.”They found that soy milk has more nutritional value than any of the other milk substitutes.
Not only is soy milk a pretty well-balanced food, but it’s also a complete protein, supplying your body with all nine essential amino acids. It’s also a milk alternative that undergoes the least processing.
Another concern is the fact that soy crops can be treated with hefty doses of harmful chemicals, which can further complicate health and wellness. Therefore, if you choose to drink soy milk, try to consume organic, non-GMO products.
If you do notice any irregularities in your reproductive system, it’s worth considering soy as a possible culprit.
Almonds themselves are full of important minerals, including calcium, manganese, selenium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron and phosphorous.
However, almond milk may not be so nutrient dense. That’s because almond milk is mainly composed of water instead of almonds. In fact, some almond milk brands contain a mere 2 percent of almonds. So, what’s the rest made of? Typically “almond” milk is full of water, thickeners, additives, and sweeteners.
Another problem with almond milk is the phytic acid which binds to nutrients, preventing them from being absorbed in the body. Therefore, even if almond milk is rich in Vitamin E and other minerals, the phytic acid may keep you from obtaining this nutrition.
Compared to other milk substitutes, coconut milk has the least amount of protein and carbohydrates. Instead, it’s rich in saturated fat, including medium-chain triglycerides (MCT’s), which help to lower appetite and boost weight loss. While this is a pretty good source of fat, it’s important to consume coconut milk in moderation.
But what is coconut milk made of? And what’s the difference between coconut milk in cans and cartons?
Canned coconut milk is more condensed and creamy. In fact, it has the consistency of the heavy whipping cream made from cow’s milk.
If you purchase coconut milk in cartons, it’s much more diluted and easier to drink. It’s a mixture of water, the white flesh of coconuts, along with sweeteners, thickeners, and preservatives.
In general, coconut milk has a creamy, coconut flavor, which you may or may not want in certain dishes. However, it’s a wonderful addition to smoothies, curries, and desserts.
Compared to other plant-based milk alternatives, rice milk is the most hypoallergenic, meaning it’s usually safest for people with food allergies and sensitivities.
While it’s a safe, sweet drink, it’s definitely not the most nutritious. It’s made primarily of white or brown rice, water, as well as thickeners and sweeteners.
When it comes to macronutrients, rice milk is very low in protein and fat, and quite high in carbohydrates. It’s also pretty high on the glycemic index which can lead to blood sugar spikes.
So, while rice milk is a nice alternative, you should definitely not rely on it for its nutritional value.
A word on thickeners in milk substitutes
Plant-based milk substitutes are a great alternative to people who choose to avoid cow’s milk. However, in order for these milks to get that creamy, milky consistency, manufacturers add thickeners.
If you check out the ingredient list, you’ll probably come across items like “gum”, which can include xanthan, carrageenan, guar and locust bean, just to name a few.
Some of these gums can irritate the digestive system, and if you’re trying to avoid digestive problems attributed to cow’s milk, you may experience new problems thanks to the thickeners used in plant-based milk substitutes.
Like many food alternatives, there are both pros and cons to keep in mind. And as long as you’re aware of the positive and negative qualities of each milk alternative, you can make an informed decision to enjoy your milk and stay healthy, too.