When we say “milk” we usually mean cow milk. Many of us still drink it – despite doubts about whether it’s healthy or not. It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture – just like butter and cream. After all, we grew up with the idea that milk from cows was healthy (skimmed milk even healthier!). But increasingly that idea is being challenged. And for good reason. So, should YOU ditch dairy for alternative milks? And if so, which?
The case for traditional milk
From a nutritional point of view, dairy milk does have benefits. It is a good source of calcium and vitamin K and usually is fortified with vitamins A and D (although almost always the inferior D2, not the superior D3). One cup of milk provides about eight grams of protein.
The case against traditional milk
Before it gets to the store, cow’s milk is heated to high temperatures to kill off bacteria like salmonella, E coli and listeria. This pasteurization process destroys valuable nutrients. Traditional milk also contains hormones, antibiotics and other potentially disease-causing chemicals. Personally, I wouldn’t touch it unless it was organic and free from added hormones. And let’s not forget that cow’s milk is relatively high in sugar. Each cup contains 3 teaspoons of sugar in the form of lactose – which is also a common cause of food intolerances and bloating.
Fortunately for anyone with a dairy intolerance, vegan preferences, or milk allergies, there are several milk alternatives on the market. But shopping for them can be confusing. You’ll find “milks” from animals, nuts, rice and other grains. Rice milk and soy milk are two that have been around for years. More recently, almond, coconut, and cashew milks have become popular.
But from a nutritionist’s point of view,some are better than others. I’m going to clear up the confusion and help you understand which provide the best nutrition and which you are better off avoiding.
Made from a mixture of partially milled rice and water, rice milk is rich in B vitamins and other nutrients and works well as a milk substitute in cooking and baking. It has no saturated fat or cholesterol, but also almost no protein. Rice milk is also the least likely option to trigger allergies.
The biggest problem is that rice milk may contain unacceptably high levels of arsenic – a toxic compound that has been linked to cancer. Recent studies have shown that many products on the market today are contaminated with arsenic, including several organic and all-natural rice products. I believe this is a good reason to limit intake, especially in young children, who are more vulnerable to physical and mental damage caused by arsenic.
Made from an extract of mature soya beans mixed with water and often some type of natural sweetener. Comparable with traditional milk in terms of nutrient content, soy milk has about the same amounts of protein, potassium and calcium as dairy milk – and a slightly thicker consistency that some people prefer.
The most important thing about soy milk is to make sure you buy a brand that is free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Another thing to bear in mind is that soy is rich in phytoestrogens – plant estrogens that are thought to mimic the action of human estrogens. Too much estrogen in your body can fuel the growth of abnormal (cancerous) cells in sensitive tissues like the breast and the lining of the uterus. While many experts (such as myself) believe that consuming soy products is safe and cancer-protective because of its beneficial phytonutrients, it continues to be a controversial subject. Women with breast cancer (and other types of estrogen driven cancers) should consume only moderate amounts of soy milk – just to be on the safe side.
Roasted almonds are blended with water into a liquid that usually is enriched with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin E. It’s free of saturated fat, lactose, and cholesterol. Almond milk makes a good alternative to cow’s milk if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to soy.
Many non-dairy, anti-soy drinkers prefer almond milk for the simple reason that it just seems healthier. But from a nutritional perspective, almond milk is not a replacement for milk. Many people do not realize there are only four almonds in each cup of almond milk, meaning a single cup of almond milk only has about a gram of protein.
Brands of almond milk that are fortified with vitamins or other nutrients do provide some nutrition, but many almond milks are mostly sweetened water.
Coconut milk is made when the grated coconut fruit is squeezed through a cheesecloth. Coconut milk is not the same as coconut water. The milk is manufactured from the pulp while the water occurs naturally inside the coconut.
We often hear about the health benefits of coconut oil, so why not assume coconut milk is equally healthy? It’s not quite that simple. While whole coconut contains some protein, coconut milk has almost none. Coconut milk, like whole coconut, does contain quite a bit of saturated fat.The good news is that the fat in coconut is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Coconut milk also has medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) that are easily and efficiently burned as fuel by your body. But remember that coconut milk should be used in moderation if you’re watching your weight (1 cup has a whopping 480 calories, compared to whole cow’s milk at 146).
Another thing to be wary of with coconut milk is its packaging. Cardboard or glass containers are okay; plastic bottles or cans might pose a danger. That’s because fatty foods like coconut milk are at a higher risk of picking up dissolved BPA from their containers. BPA or bisphenol-A is often found in plastic and in the lining of certain canned foods. The chemical has been linked to breast cancer tumor growth and other types of cancer.
Plenty of other milk-makers are trying to put new alternatives on the grocery shelves, including cashew milk, flax milk, hemp milk, and oat milk. None of these have as much protein as cow or soy milk, though hemp and oat milks are slightly higher in protein levels than the others. As more research comes out about their risks and benefits, I’ll be sure to keep you informed.
The bottom line
Like raw, unpasteurised milk, the new alternatives mentioned above are still quite hard to find – so not very practical to add to your daily routine. None of the others are “bad” choices, if you make sure to avoid the sweetened versions. If you do opt to stay away from dairy and soy milk, consider protein and nutrient fortified versions of the other milks. If you decide to skip milk and milk substitutes all together, try to get your calcium and vitamins from green leafy vegetables, tofu (maybe) and beans.
As for me, I’m sticking to a little soy milk in my morning coffee and granola!
For nutritional consultations on a wide range of health issues contact Susan Tomassini, Licensed Nutritionist BSc (Hons) Dip BCNH @ 06 17481114 or visit www.foodwise.life for your personalized nutritional program!
Why not make some delicious Iced Coffee one of these hot afternoons?
Here’s how to make it:
You’ll need a tall glass full of ice and a spoon long enough to reach the bottom.
Pour room temperature (or chilled) coffee into the glass.
Pour in the white stuff – your choice using the information above.
Add your choice of sweetener if you like it sweet (I use maple syrup or yakon).
Stir it all up and enjoy!