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When Cow’s Milk Doesn’t Cut It – An Unbiased Look At The Alternatives
By Natalia Padgen
From lactose intolerance, to lifestyle choices like veganism, many people now have reason to opt for non-dairy milk alternatives.
To meet increasing demand there is a plethora of products available on supermarket and health food shop shelves.
While soy milk is the most visible choice, alternatives including rice, almond and oat milk are also readily accessible.
Which one is best?
All these substitutes derive from different ingredients, have distinct tastes and varying health benefits and concerns.
With much debate as to which milk reigns supreme, an unbiased look at the options will give you the tools to make an informed decision.
When you think of ‘lactose intolerance’ or ‘dairy-free’, soy milk might be what comes to mind.
It is the most common lactose free milk substitute, used widely in both the hospitality industry and domestically and is acceptable for vegans.
Soy milk is created by soaking soy beans in water, grinding them, draining the mixture with the resulting fluid being the milk.
Manufacturers often add sugar and thickeners to improve the taste and texture which is slightly earthy and plant-like, however taste can vary drastically among brands and varieties.
Of all the milk substitutes, it is nutritionally the closest match to cow’s milk, containing almost as much protein.
Fortified varieties can contain a comparable amount of calcium as well as other beneficial additions such as vitamin D.
Containing no cholesterol, soy milk is a good option for those concerned with heart health.
In fact The Better Health Channel suggests that in combination with a healthy diet, soy may protect against heart disease, stating " soy protein has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels, especially if blood cholesterol levels are high."
Soy milk is also rich in isoflavones which studies have shown can help prevent osteoporosis, reduce cholesterol, ease the symptoms of menopause, and potentially reduce the risk of certain cancers.
However, other studies have shown that these same isovlavones are a health concern and could have negative effects on thyroid function and hormonal health.
For an in depth account of this taboo topic read Mary Shomon’s article on about.com: Soy and the Thyroid – The controversy over soy and thyroid health
If soy milk’s not for you, rice milk may be the way to go.
It is appropriate for the lactose intolerant, vegans and those with a soy allergy.
Made by pressing processed brown rice through a mill that presses out the grains to leave the milk, it usually also contains rice syrup, evaporated cane juice or another natural sweetener.
It is not as thick as dairy milk, translucent and slightly sweet with a full oaty taste, making it popular for cooking.
Healthy for the heart conscious, rice milk contains no saturated fat or cholesterol.
The make-up of rice milk is very different to that of dairy and soy milk.
It is high in carbohydrates and sugars while containing little protein or calcium.
As a result, when opting for rice milk, it is important not use it as a nutritional replacement for cow’s milk and if your sugar or carbohydrate intake are a concern, your rice milk consumption should be monitored.
Rice milk varieties that are fortified with calcium, vitamins A, B & D as well as iron are available as well as unsweetened options.
There are arguments that both soy and rice milk are harmful to your long-term health.
Dr Ben Kim voices his concerns in three main areas.
He believes that the polyunsaturated vegetable oils contained in many brands of rice and soy milk contribute to an imbalance of essential fatty acids in the body.
“As harmless as this might sound, I am convinced that a chronic imbalance of essential fatty acids caused by regular consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils is a major cause of cardiovascular disease...I recommend that you stay away from these oils completely," Dr Kim said
He also warns on the danger of their sugar content.
"Natural or not, most sweeteners put significant stress on your pancreas and liver.
"They also raise your insulin levels, which significantly increases your risk of suffering from unhealthy weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, premature aging, and several other negative side effects.
"While fermented forms of soy like miso, tempeh, and natto can be healthy choices for some people, non-ferm
ented soy products can cause a variety of health problems if consumed in large quantities on a regular basis," he concluded.
Dr Kim is a firm believer of Almond milk as a healthy substitute that bypasses these danger areas.
He even offers his own recipe for making it at home .
Almond Milk is made from ground almonds and is completely lactose free, vegan-friendly and popular among those involved in the raw food movement.
It is known for its light, nutty taste and creamy consistency and is perfect for use in smoothies and deserts.
Almonds are a high source of potassium, magnesium, copper, vitamin E, selenium and calcium.
The milk is also typically very low in fat and sugar making it a healthy choice.
However, almond milk does not contain much protein or calcium and therefore should not be used as a dietary replacement for cow’s milk.
It is also important to note that some experts warn against feeding almond milk to babies as it may induce nut allergies.
While almonds are full of goodness, in order to benefit from the nutrition that almond milk has to offer, you would need to drink a lot of it.
It has been argued that it if you are drinking almond milk for the nutritional value of almonds alone, it may be better to eat a handful of the raw nuts.
Many people opt for almond milk purely because of its pleasant taste.
Other nut milk varieties available include cashew and hazelnut milk.
If you’re not into nuts, consider oat milk.
Made from pre-soaked oats, water and sometimes other grains such as barley and brown rice, oat milk has a mild, sweet, oaty flavour and light texture.
Consumers often choose it because it compares well to skim and soy milk and is excellent in smoothies and deserts.
Lactose and cholesterol free, oat milk is a healthy option for the lactose intolerant, vegans and heart-health conscious.
It is also high in fibre, vitamin E, folic acid and phytochemicals; naturally occurring chemicals in plants that help fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
On the down side, oat milk does not provide as much protein or calcium as cow or soy milk (brands fortified with calcium are available), so if oat is your milk of choice, make sure you are getting these nutrients elsewhere.
With so many options available and factors to consider, there is no right answer to the question “Which milk is best?” In reality, the question should be rephrased, “Which milk is best for me?”.
For some it may come down to the balance of nutrients, sugar or carbohydrate content, while others may be influenced by research findings and there will be those for whom the decision is purely about taste.
There is a milk out there for you.