Healthy Milk Alternatives

August 24, 2010

There are plenty of choices of milk products these days, from soy to cow to goat.

There are plenty of choices of milk products these days, from soy to cow to goat. If you suffer from a food allergy or are lactose-intolerant, your doctor may advise you to turn to alternatives to cow’s milk. With the myriad of choices in the supermarket aisles, this column decodes the “milk” department, from shelf-stable choices to refrigerated classics; there is something for every taste.

Lactose-Free Milk is available for individuals who are unable to break down lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. Lactose-free milk is cow’s milk with lactase (an enzyme) added to it to convert the lactose in the milk to glucose, making it easier to digest for those people who are unable to digest lactose.

Goat’s Milk has a similar fat, protein and carbohydrate content as regular cow’s milk. It contains slightly lower levels of lactose (4.1 percent vs. 4.7 percent in cow’s milk), which may be an advantage for lactose-intolerant persons. The mineral content of goat’s and cow’s milks is similar, but goat’s milk contains more calcium, as well as higher levels of vitamin B6, vitamin A, potassium and niacin. But cow’s milk wins when it comes to B12 and folic acid.

Alternative “milk” beverages, available in both refrigerated and non-refrigerated varieties, are not made from animal milk but from nut, grain or seed bases. These products are not actually defined as ‘milk’ as under the USDA guidelines. In fact, the USDA alerts consumers that calcium-fortified foods and beverages such as soy beverages or orange juice may provide calcium, but may not provide the other nutrients found in milk and milk products.

Nut milks are made from almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts or filberts, macadamia, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts. Commercially, Almond Milk is probably the most well-known, and while almonds may be one of the healthiest nuts you can eat, the almond content in commercially available almond milk may be negligible. It’s important to read the label to be sure you’re getting the benefit of almonds in the package. Almonds are rich in magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium, and calcium. There are varieties on the market that limit sweeteners and calories, while providing the nutritional attributes of almonds.

Seed milks are often made from hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds (linseed), pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and pine nuts. Commercially, Hemp Milk is a newcomer to the marketplace and gaining in popularity. Produced from the seeds of the hemp plant, this beverage is packed with omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as being an excellent source of protein and vitamin E, and having a calcium content comparative to almond beverages.

Rice Milk is a kind of grain milk processed from rice. It is mostly made from brown rice and commonly unsweetened. Commercially available rice-based beverages are a good choice for those with sensitivities to dairy. Sweetened rice milks usually contain rice syrup, evaporated cane juice or some other natural sweetener. They are typically fortified with calcium or vitamin D, and are a large source of carbohydrates, so you should expand your diet to include a wide variety of protein- and calcium-rich food.

Soy Milk is made from soybeans. According to the FDA, “25 grams of soy protein a day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Soy milk is a good source of protein (equivalent to cow’s milk) and high in vitamin B. It is also a good source of lecithin and vitamin E, and is safe for people with lactose intolerance or milk allergy. Many of soy’s desirable health benefits are attributed to isoflavones, the naturally occurring plant compounds found in soybeans in varying amounts. Studies show that isoflavones may play a part in lowering LDL (or “bad” cholesterol) in the blood.