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Milk Alternatives: Are They Really Better for You, or Is It Hype?

What is really in almond, hemp seed, coconut, rice and soy milks

By Maureen Callahan | April 12, 2013
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

Supermarket shelves are jammed with all manner of “milk” selections that don’t come from the dairy down the road, but from plant sources like nuts, soy and grains. Rapidly stealing cows’ milk customers, non-dairy beverages are popular for all kinds of reasons, from environmental concerns to animal well-being to lactose intolerance.

But what do these milk knock-offs taste like? And are they good-for-you? Looking at the big picture, it’s a mix of pros and cons. On the plus side are low levels of artery-clogging saturated fat, zero cholesterol and convenient packaging. The cons: Sugar content is often high and protein levels, except in the case of soy milk, are not impressive. So before you start sipping, take a look at how some of these popular non-dairy beverages stack-up.

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Almond Milk

The “Miss Congeniality” of non-dairy alternatives, almond milk glows with a nutrient-rich almond halo. After all, an ounce of almonds (23 nuts) sports a healthy six grams of protein, lots of Vitamin E and small amounts of minerals, like magnesium and calcium. The hitch: A cup of almond milk contains roughly four almonds, according to Nutrition Action Health Letter, barely enough to contribute much of that good-for-you almond nutrition. One cup of this milk (mostly water and sweeteners) delivers just one gram of protein, unless you buy one of the newer protein-fortified varieties. Bottom line: Drink it if you like the taste. (Note: All alternative milks have added sugars except for the unsweetened varieties. For more about sugar amounts, see Alternatives vs Cow's Milk.)

Calories per cup: 30-120; 1 gram protein, 1-23 grams carb (0-22 grams sugars), 3 grams fat

Sipping Notes: Lightly sweet with the faintest hint of almond.

Hemp Seed Milk

Fairly new to the non-dairy aisle, this light beige drink is winning over converts at a rapid clip, mostly due to its thicker, creamier texture. If you’re a child of the '60s you might be connecting the dots and wondering if hemp has some of the same psychoactive compounds as marijuana. Not to worry. Hemp seeds contain zilch in the way of THC so they won't deliver that well-known “high.” The nutrition claim to fame for these light-colored seeds is that they’re a rich source of plant-based omega 3 fats, the kind of fats that are healthy for the heart. Of the 5-6 grams of fat in a cup of hemp milk, only half a gram is saturated fat. Alas, protein levels are low, just two grams per cup.

Calories per cup: 70-190; 2 grams protein, 1-35 grams carb (6-23 grams sugars), 6 grams fat

Sipping Notes:  Mildly nutty with a subtle sweetness. Ranks as the thickest and creamiest of the milk alternatives, particularly the Tempt brand.

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Coconut Milk

If you’re expecting the big, bold flavor of canned coconut milk, this in-the-carton coconut beverage is sure to disappoint. It’s hard to even detect coconut in the blend (unless you’re one of those super tasters). What these drinks do have is plenty of saturated fat, ounce-for-ounce as much as whole milk. That probably explains their popularity as coffee creamers and cereal toppers since saturated fat delivers a richer mouthfeel. But is sipping saturated fat a good idea? Despite what you hear about coconut being a healthy fat, the American Heart Association still recommends going easy on all saturated fats, including coconut. Counting carbs? Coconut milk, which is low in protein like other alternatives, sports the lowest carb levels of alternative milks with a skimpy 5 or 6 grams of carbs on average. Even chocolate flavored varieties max out at 10 grams (a little over two teaspoons) of sugar.

Calories per cup:  50-100; 0-1 gram protein, 1-12 grams carb (1-10 grams sugars), 5 grams fat

Sipping Notes: Not very sweet and the coconut flavor is barely detectable.

Rice Milk

Made by blending cooked brown rice with water, this bright white drink looks most like cow’s milk in the glass. But like other alternatives, it delivers a measly gram or two of protein per cup, compared to the 8 grams found in dairy milk. On the minus side for diabetics and anyone watching their sugar intake, it’s also the richest in carbs of non-dairy beverages with unsweetened varieties often having 10 grams of carbs (instead of the usual one or two grams) and flavored varieties going as high as 34 grams (8 teaspoons sugar.) Who can benefit? Anyone with a nut allergy or people looking for a gluten-free alternative.

Calories per cup: 70-160; 1-2 grams protein, 11-34 grams carb (1-28 grams sugars), 3 grams fat

Sipping Notes: Most “watery” of the alternative milks, this one is also the sweetest tasting.

Soy Milk

The best source of protein among the “milk” alternatives, soy milk is a close match to 2% cow’s milk when it comes to nutrition. It carries about 7 grams of protein; cow’s milk has 8 grams. It’s moderate in fat, about 4 grams per cup, compared to 2% milk’s 5 grams. Where they differ? Most of soy milk’s fat is the unsaturated heart-healthy variety while most of cow’s milk’s fat is saturated. So if you’re looking for a non-dairy beverage to replace milk’s nutrition and improve on its fat profile, this is the one to buy. One caveat: Since most soybeans grown today are genetically modified, look for organic products if you want to sip “non-GMO.”

Calories per cup: 90-130; 6-8 grams protein, 7-14 grams carb (6-11 grams sugar), 4 grams fat

Sipping Notes: Added sugars and flavors don’t always do a good job of masking the mildly “beany” flavor.

Alternatives vs Cow’s Milk

Wondering about storage, safety, and cooking tips for your favorite alternative milk? Here’s Next Avenue's answers to frequently asked questions:
 
How long do these milks last once opened?

Like cow’s milk, most alternative milks are ultra pasteurized (exposed to high heat for short periods of time) to extend shelf-life. Once opened, store them in the refrigerator and use them up in 7 to 10 days.

How can you tell if almond, rice or coconut “milk” is spoiled?

Just like with dairy products, alternative milks will curdle, develop funky aromas and go through changes in color and texture that signal spoilage.

Do these alternative milks match up to cow’s milk when it comes to calcium and vitamin D?

That depends. Alternatives are fortified with anywhere from 10 to 45 percent of daily calcium requirements. But the type of calcium used is key. If it’s calcium carbonate, the body takes it in easily. If it’s tricalcium phosphate, don’t expect to absorb as much due to lower bioavailability. Vitamin D is a slightly different story. Cow's milk is fortified with vitamin D3; alternatives contain vitamin D2, usually about 25 to 30 percent of the daily requirement. Which form of "D" is best? Both are well absorbed so either is a good source of the nutrient.   

What’s a good benchmark for healthy amounts of added sugar in these milks?

Unsweetened alternative milks, averaging 0 to 2 grams of sugar per cup, aren’t a problem. And anything that keeps in line with cow’s milk, which has 12 grams of natural sugars per cup, is probably fine. But step into flavored territory and sugar levels skyrocket. A cup of chocolate flavored almond or hemp seed milk packs a whopping 22 to 23 grams or almost 6 teaspoons of sugar. Chocolate-flavored rice milk can have as much as 34 grams of sugar. For reference, the American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar calories per day for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men.

What’s up with additives like guar gum, locust bean gum, tapioca starch and carrageenan?

Used in ice creams, puddings, and many packaged foods these generally recognized as safe (GRAS) chemicals are thickening agents used to improve mouthfeel and texture. Want to sidestep them and make your own alternative milks? Click here for recipes

Can I bake and cook with non-dairy milks?

Yes and no. While most alternatives will stand in for dairy milk, results tend to be mixed. That makes sense when you consider that flavorings, sugar content, and thickeners — which vary from brand to brand and with each type of milk — can all impact the end result. Some general rules of thumb: Coconut milk and unsweetened milks work best in sauces. For baking, opt for milks with a similar sugar profile to cow’s milk (12 grams of sugar per cup) since sugar impacts crust and texture. And check company websites for tips. Blue Diamond, for instance, advises against using Almond Breeze with packaged instant puddings.

Can I make yogurt with these milks?

Yes, although you might need extra thickeners to net a desirable yogurt texture. Click here to find yogurt recipes and supplies.
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