Alternatives to dairy milk are almost pouring out of the grocery store these days. More and more people are dumping milk from cows, goats and sheep in favor of milk made from things like almonds, coconut, hemp, soy and rice.
As many as 38 percent of American consumers are staying away from dairy products, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. As such, U.S. sales of alternatives to traditional milk hit $1.6 billion in 2014, the journal says.
For people who adhere to a vegan diet or are lactose-intolerant, these non-dairy alternatives certainly need a place in the refrigerator. But are soy milk and its siblings a wise choice for a healthy diet? Experts give their glass-half-full and glass-half-empty views of non-dairy milk.
Glass half full
Variety of advantages
Not all non-dairy milks are created equal. As a matter of fact, different types of non-dairy milk offer different benefits, according to registered dietitian Rachel Begun, a special-diets expert and certified natural chef in Boulder, Colorado.
- Almond milk tends to be relatively low in calories compared with skim milk and contains no saturated fat. Plus, almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E.
- Hemp milk contains a high level of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
- Thanks to its relatively high fat content, coconut milk boasts a creamier texture than other non-dairy milk. “It has a bolder flavor than other non-dairy milks, which might make it easier for people to enjoy the unsweetened variety,” Begun says.
- Soy milk ranks as the best non-dairy option for mirroring the protein content of cow’s milk.
- Rice milk is low in allergens, making it a great choice for allergy-sensitive people.
Fairly rich in calcium
Several non-dairy milks are as good of a source of a calcium, if not better, than real dairy milk, says Dr. Arielle Levitan, co-founder of Vous Vitamin LLC, a provider of personalized vitamins. Specifically, coconut milk, almond milk and many rice milks contain about 30 percent of the daily calcium requirement per cup, she says.
Even if you don’t pick one of these non-dairy milks and balk at dairy milk, you can head off calcium deficiency in other ways.
“People often ask, ‘If I do not drink milk, how will I get my calcium?’ I ask back, ‘Where do cows get calcium?’ The answer is, ‘From the grass they eat,’” says certified natural health practitioner Bob Huttinga, author of Put Your Health in Your Own Hands. “We should be getting our calcium from our food, especially green vegetables — just like cows do.”
Easy to make
Non-dairy milk doesn’t require a bunch of bulky equipment to make at home. It’s certainly easier to produce than cow’s milk. Registered dietitian Megan Roosevelt, founder of HealthyGroceryGirl.com, says homemade non-dairy milk helps you steer clear of preservatives and sugar you’re likely to find in store-bought brands.
Glass half empty
Non-dairy milk isn’t an equal substitute for cow’s milk, Begun says. Cow’s milk is a prime source of potassium, vitamins A and D, magnesium and phosphorus, which are lacking in non-dairy milk.
Non-dairy milk you buy at the store can be high in added sugar, Roosevelt warns. To avoid a sugar rush, purchase unsweetened non-dairy milk rather than “original” or “flavored” versions, she says. Or just whip up some non-dairy milk in your kitchen.
Most non-dairy milk contains little to no protein, Roosevelt says. But if you’re committed to non-dairy milk and want a decent source of protein, try the soy or hemp varieties. They typically contain more protein per serving compared with other non-dairy milk, experts say.
“The good news is we can consume an adequate amount of protein in a day from other food groups to achieve an overall balanced, healthy diet,” Roosevelt says.