Non-Dairy Milks: Healthy, or Just Hype?

Non-dairy milks, products that look and can be used like cow’s milk, but don’t contain any actual dairy, are all the rage lately.   Some people turn to non-dairy milks because they are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy, some drink them in order to save calories, and others simply enjoy the taste.  No matter the reason for choosing a non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk, it’s important to understand exactly what you are actually drinking – and what you are not.

Non-dairy milks run the gamut from widely-available soy milk and almond milk to up-and-comers like flax milk.  Most of these “milks” are fortified with similar vitamins and minerals as those found in cow’s milk; remember, however, that your body prefers most nutrients in their natural state, meaning that the fortified nutrients in non-dairy milks will probably not be absorbed as well as those same nutrients that naturally occur in cow’s milk.  In addition to being fortified with nutrients, non-dairy milks also often contain added sugar to make them more palatable.  The added sugar in these beverages can add up fast, so much so that you may end up consuming more calories from a glass of non-dairy milk than from a glass of soda!  When choosing a non-dairy milk, look for unsweetened varieties, which contain no added sugar and often taste good enough on their own.

With these guidelines in mind, which milk alternative should you choose?  Is one better than the others?  Here’s how they stack up:

Soy milk:  Soy milk, probably the most ubiquitous non-dairy milk on grocery store shelves, has the closest nutrient profile to cow’s milk, so it’s a great milk substitute if you’re concerned about missing out on nutrients since you’re not consuming dairy.  Soy milk is also higher in naturally-occurring protein than many of its other dairy-free counterparts, making it a good choice for those who want a little more substance, and a feeling of satiety, from their beverages.  You may be avoiding soy milk and other soy products because you’ve heard that they have estrogen-like effects; while this is true, there is really only a chance of these effects appearing when soy products are consumed in extremely high quantities (think:  all throughout the day, every single day), so drinking the occasional glass of soy milk shouldn’t do you any harm.

Almond milk:  In recent years, almond milk has been giving soy milk a run for its money in the popularity department.  Although almond milk is made from real almonds, most of the nuts’ nutrients are lost in the milk-making process.  This means that almond milk has almost no protein, and many of the nutrients it contains, like calcium, have been added back in during processing.  That’s not to say that almond milk isn’t a good choice for milk-avoiders; unsweetened varieties are extremely low in calories (30-40 per cup), and the thick consistency of almond milk lends itself well for baking and smoothies. It’s perfectly fine to make almond milk your non-dairy beverage of choice, as long as you make up for the nutrients it lacks elsewhere.

Rice milk:  Rice milk has a much thinner texture and naturally sweeter taste than other non-dairy milks.  This makes it well-suited for use in cereal or sweet recipes that call for skim milk.  Although it is often made from brown rice, all of the fiber in that rice is lost during processing, so rice milk is not a high-fiber beverage.

Flax milk:  Flax milk, unlike other non-dairy milks, has the added bonus of being high in omega-3 fatty acids.  These omega-3s can help with circulation, heart health, and brain health, making them a valuable asset.  Flax milk is a little harder to find than other non-dairy milks, but if you’re looking for an easy way to sneak some omega-3s into your day, it’s worth the hunt.

Coconut milk:  The coconut milk that’s found in the refrigerated section and in shelf-stable packages next to the soy milk and almond milk isn’t actually “real” coconut milk; that title belongs to the milk of actual coconuts that’s sold in a can and often found in the baking or ethnic foods aisle of the grocery store.  The coconut milk with which you may be familiar is actually considered a “coconut milk beverage,” and it’s quickly become a sensation in the non-dairy milk world.  If you enjoy the taste of coconuts, then you’ll probably like coconut milk, which has a faint taste of the real thing.  Like real coconuts, however, coconut milk is also very high in saturated fat, so it should be consumed in moderation, as drinking more than one glass a day will put you close to the halfway mark for your recommended daily intake of heart-unhealthy saturated fat.

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