What are milk alternatives?
Has anyone noticed that the "milk" aisle at the grocery store just keeps on growing? I put that in quotations because in addition to traditional cow's milk you can now find a host of different plant-based milk alternatives made of everything from almonds to cashews, rice, hazelnuts, oats and even peas! On one hand I always welcome the option to add more variety, and folks with allergies have many more choices these days compared to ten years ago. On the other hand I find some of these milk substitutes to use tricky marketing which can give mixed messaging to consumers.
During my plant-based cooking challenge I tried a couple of milk alternatives and wanted to share my thoughts. For context, my household is typically the 1% cow's milk type. Milk gets a bad rap, but the nutrition profile is actually really impressive. Having been to a dairy multiple times I also feel really confident that milk is safe to drink, which I know is a concern to some. Lactose intolerance is common, and there are other reasons that one might avoid dairy, such as taste preference. This is where milk alternatives come into play. But how do they stack up nutritionally?
Soy is the next best choice if you are searching for a high-protein beverage. A common misconception is that almond milk is a good source of protein when actually it's quite low. Almost all are a good source of calcium and vitamin D due to fortification, which is a good thing since these are the main nutrients that most of us tend to associate with dairy.
Is milk high in sugar?
Many of the milk alternatives on the market come in a variety of flavors including plain/original, unsweetened, sweetened, chocolate or vanilla. And I often find that people are concerned about the sugar in cow's milk, make the switch to almond and then end up choosing a sweetened version because it tastes better. Remember that the sugar in cow's milk is naturally occurring in the form of lactose, it's not added during processing. Basically, it's not something most people need to be concerned with. When it comes to unsweet vs. sweet alternatives, each of our taste preferences will be different so maybe try both before settling on one over the other. My personal philosophy is to buy unsweetened knowing that I can always add this later if needed. That being said, there is no need to to choke down something that tastes like dirt just to avoid a little bit of extra sugar. Remember that the health benefits are not negated by making something more palatable.
Price is another factor to consider. Some of these alternatives are more than double the price of cow's milk! Depending on how much your household goes through each week or your personal grocery budget, this may or may not be noteworthy. Buying store brand versions can help you save and are often identical.
I like to buy the store brand plain soy milk once in a while to mix things up and because it makes the creamiest oatmeal and smoothies. I have also tried almond milk a few times, but really just do not care for the taste. During my cooking challenge I tried the Ripple Foods pea milk which I think is new-ish to the market. It has a strange aftertaste and the texture was too thick for me. Jacob even noticed that it pooled on top of oats instead of soaking in, which is kind of weird. And while I love cooking with canned coconut milk, it is super heavy and rich so not ideal for every day drinking. The ones that are specifically made for drinking have a strong coconut flavor so while they might work well for a tropical smoothie, I would get tired of having it all the time.
As with most things in the world of food and nutrition, there are several factors that go into our eating decisions. The goal of this isn't to convince you to choose one or the other, but instead just provide all of the facts so you can make an informed decision for yourself. Hopefully this provided some helpful perspective on a notoriously confusing topic!