dairy

Let's Talk About Milk Alternatives

the nutritional benefits of milk alternatives

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 really impressive. Having been to a dairy multiple times, I am 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? Here’s a starting point:

source: https://www.nationaldairycouncil.org/content/2015/whats-in-your-glass-infographic

source: https://www.nationaldairycouncil.org/content/2015/whats-in-your-glass-infographic

Nutritionally Speaking

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. Note that when you buy the “original” flavor of most milk alternatives, there is a good chance that it’s sweetened but without any specific flavor (such as vanilla or chocolate).

Another thing that’s important to remember is that the sugar in cow's milk is naturally occurring (in the form of lactose), it's not added during processing. Carbohydrates in our food is not a bad thing, this is what gives us energy! It’s also a totally reasonable amount for the nutrition that comes with and 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 you can always add more sweetness later if needed. That being said, there is no need to to choke down something that tastes like chalk just to avoid a little bit of extra sugar. The health benefits are not negated by making something more palatable. 

Price Comparison 

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 grocery budget, this may or may not be noteworthy. Buying store brand versions can help you save but just remember that the ingredients and taste might differ.

I sometimes like to buy the store brand plain soy milk on occasion to mix things up and because it makes the creamiest oatmeal and smoothies. I’ve also tried almond milk, but really don’t care for the taste. During my plant-based cooking challenge earlier this year I tried the Ripple Foods pea milk. It has a strange aftertaste and the texture was too thick for me. 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 are watery and have a strong coconut flavor so while they might work well for a tropical smoothie, I would get tired of having this all the time. 

Summary

As with most things, there are several factors that go into our eating decisions. The goal of this post isn’t to convince you to choose one or the other, but instead just provide an overview so you can make an informed decision based on facts over fear or misinformation. Hopefully this provided some helpful perspective on a notoriously confusing topic!

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Agriculture

lost creek dairy.JPG

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an all-day agriculture education event that involved touring a dairy ranch, cattle reserve and vegetable farm, plus sit in on a panel discussion regarding controversial "ag" topics where we could ask questions and learn about daily operations. I couldn't wait to share just a snippet of my day! In the spirit of transparency, the event was hosted by the Western Dairy Association and sponsors included Colorado Beef Council, Common Ground Colorado, Denver Botanic Gardens, Great Western Sugar, Monsanto, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and Sakata Farms. I was not compensated for attending or writing this post and all thoughts shared are my own. 

What a cool event this was! Let me start from the beginning... I met the rest of the attendees in north Denver bright and early where we boarded a large charter bus and were transported to the first stop of the day, Lost Creek Dairy in in Roggen, Colorado. I had actually been on a tour here previously so had learned about most of the operations already, but it was still fun to hear the owners talk about their story and how much they care about the cows. They really seem like wonderful people who love what they do and take great pride in keeping the cows happy and healthy! From there we headed to nearby Huwa Cattle Reserve and were able to walk around the pastures and chat with the staff on some new breeding technologies they are working to develop (which involve choosing certain desirable traits they want to see in the beef they produce and sell). I'm not going to sugar coat things and pretend I love petting cows and hanging out at dairies and cattle ranches (haha!) but I did enjoy hearing about the operations at both of the first two stops of the tour. 

From the cattle reserve we moved on to the Hudson Town Hall for lunch and a panel discussion featuring two different topics (livestock first, plants second). Discussions like these are helpful because it allows participants to get the perspective of farmer/rancher straight from the source. We were lucky enough to hear from the following experts who were all extremely intelligent and well-spoken:

  • Lily Edwards Calloway, PhD (Animal Welfare Advisor)

  • Debbie Preston (Dairy Representative)

  • Jan Kochis (Rocky Mountain Farmers Union)

  • Terry Heine (Egglands Best)

  • Robert Sakata (Sakata Farms)

  • Rebecca Larson, PhD (Plant Scientist) 

  • Brien Darby (Denver Botanic Gardens)

After the panel discussion concluded, we got back on the bus and headed to our final stop of the day, Petrocco Farms in Brighton. Not surprisingly this was my favorite part of the day and the first time I had visited a produce farm. Our tour guide, Kate, was a wealth of knowledge and I learned so much from her. Apparently Petrocco is rare in that they are one of the few farms in Colorado that specialize in leafy greens because the weather here is so unpredictable. They sell locally but also ship vegetables to several other states and pride themselves on their food safety program and detail-orientated operation. 

greenhouse.JPG

I appreciated the opportunity to be involved with this day-long event and while agriculture-related issues can get really personal/controversial sometimes, it's great that we as consumers have choices and can each make our own decisions about the food we want to eat and serve our families. Here are a few points from the day that I thought would be interesting for readers: 

1. On milk - is it safe? 

Most milk hits shelves within just two days of harvesting with any surplus going to manufacture whey protein powder, cheese and yogurt. It's is a highly-regulated market with milk getting tested up to 7-9 times before hitting grocery store shelves! If anything sub-par is detected, entire tanks are disposed of at the owner's expense. Whether you choose skim/2%/whole or conventional/organic - all are nutritious and safe choices if you choose to purchase it (which I think is pretty awesome). 

2. On beef - what is "grass-fed" and should I be eating it? 

The ranchers on the cattle reserve were very open with us that grass-finished beef tends to require more water, is less consistent in taste and takes longer to get to market as compared to conventional grass-fed/corn finished beef so they choose the former. There may be a slight nutritional advantage in choosing grass-fed (higher omega-3 content and lower fat content), however the jury is still out on whether this is significant (i.e. beef is still not a good source of omega-3 fats). I'm not a huge meat-eater so it's probably no surprise that this wasn't my favorite part of the day. However, after having pointed conversations with the staff at Huwa, I am completely confident that great precautions are taken to ensure a safe, nutritious and affordable supply. And while meat (specifically beef) has recently come under fire for being unsustainable because of the large amounts of water that are required to produce it, it is clear that these professionals are working hard to decrease waste and make their practices as efficient as possible, which was great to hear. 

huwa reserve.JPG

3. On technology and innovation - should we be concerned? 

This seemed to be the recurring theme of the day. Genetic modification and other available technologies like GPS guidance can result in huge benefits including increased yields, decreased pesticide use and better weed control (which I think we can all agree are good things!). I asked specifically if there were crops that demonstrate higher yield when grown organically, and the response was that yes, it can vary by plant. Either way, I thought it was interesting that one method is not the end-all, be-all and some farmers actually grow both conventional and organic crops. In general, farmers and ranchers agreed that a huge challenge is trying to "do more with less" (meaning more production with less resources and environmental impact) while also being mindful of consumer perceptions about technology and working to find the best balance between the two. 

4. On grocery stores - how fresh is the produce? 

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the produce in our local grocery store could hit shelves as soon as 8-9 hours post farm pick-up. This is so impressive! Kate from Petrocco even said that sometimes grocery store vegetables are fresher than what you can get at the farmer's market, so if you are aiming for fresh/local, be sure to ask the vendors for specifics. 

5. On fruits & veggies - is conventionally grown produce safe and nutritious? 

The answer is yes! I purchase mostly conventionally grown produce because of the lower price point and because I feel really confident that it is just as safe and just as nutritious as anything grown organically. For reference: the average woman could eat hundreds of apples in one day without any adverse health effects related to pesticides (source). I know this can get really personal and we all have different opinions, so instead of getting into a battle of which method is "better" I think it's more advantageous to support all forms of agriculture and just promote eating fruits and vegetables, period.

To wrap things up, farmers take great care in their practices and work to be good stewards of the land, their crops, and other resources. This is their livelihood after all. They don't waste resources or overuse chemicals, medications or pesticides as is so often portrayed by the media because 1) they don't want to compromise the quality of the finished product and 2) these are all really expensive! Additionally, many of the farmers that I had the chance to hear from or interact with were so incredibly knowledgeable, it really was inspiring to hear them speak clearly and confidently about the science on these issues. 

As I mentioned above, I took an insane amount of notes so if you have any additional questions or need clarification on anything, I would be happy to attempt to answer - just leave me a comment. Thanks for reading my recap, I look forward to more of these events in the future!