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:
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 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.
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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