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.
The most well-known milk substitute, soya is close in protein content to cow’s 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. It also provides potassium and is lower in sugar than dairy, as long as you buy the unsweetened varieties. The nutty, creamy taste is good in cooking, on cereals and in coffee too.
Soya can also be a useful addition to your diet during perimenopause, too. Studies confirm that two to three servings of soya products a day may help reduce the frequency of hot flushes, as well as lower cholesterol and help to protect heart health after menopause.
According to an article by the Physician’s Committee For Responsible Medicine, a cup of soya milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium, making it a valuable addition to the diet of post-menopausal women.
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.”
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 are naturally present
Unsweetened almond milk is a blend of nuts and water; it’s low in fat and has about 60-70kJ per 100ml. The hitch: A cup of almond milk contains roughly four almonds, 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. Try to find brands that are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B12. The subtle, sweetish taste makes it good in smoothies and on cereal.
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.
Not to be confused with the creamy milk in a tin used in Asian cooking! This thinner version (from a carton) is made from pressed coconut, water and salt. Its subtle coconut flavour makes it ideal for smoothies.
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).
This milk alternative has plenty of saturated fat, ounce-for-ounce as much as whole milk. That probably explains its popularity as coffee creamers and cereal toppers since saturated fat delivers a richer mouthfeel. Counting calories? Maybe coconut milk isn't for you!
Because oat milk is made from strained oats, it’s missing a lot of the nutrients that you would normally get from eating a bowl of oats. For this reason, it’s often enriched with nutrients.
Be sure to read the labels carefully when choosing your oat milk, as a variety of sweeteners are often added to counter the bland taste of oat milk; and if you want calcium and vitamins, you’ll have to buy the fortified varieties with vitamins A, D, B2, and B12, as well as various minerals like calcium.
Particularly, oat milk is a good choice for people with allergies or intolerances. It’s naturally free of lactose, nuts, soy, and gluten if made from certified gluten-free oats.
Compared to other types of milk, oat milk generally has more calories, carbs, and fibre than almond, soy, or cow’s milk while providing less protein than soy and dairy varieties. Oat milk may benefit bone and heart health.
When it comes to kilojoules, watch what other ingredients have been added to rice milk – you’ll often find rice milk mixed with coconut milk or sunflower oil. These can really boost the energy content.
Compared to all of the many different milk alternatives available these days, rice milk is the friendliest of all. Not only is it perfect for those who are intolerant to dairy and lactose, but also those who cannot consume soy milk, almond milk or cashew milk because of allergy to soy and tree nuts.
Rice milk supplies your body with B vitamins because rice is rich in them. While it’s true that processing can destroy some of those vitamins important for energy production and healthy nerves, manufacturers of rice milk fortify their product with B vitamins anyway.
It packs the least amount of saturated fat among all cow’s milk alternatives on the market. This nondairy milk is also devoid of cholesterol, making it perfect for those who are advised by their doctors to limit their intake of bad cholesterol for the health of their hearts.
Rice milk contains impressive amounts of selenium and manganese, both of which have antioxidant properties. We all know how damaging excess free radicals are to the health, and the consumption of rice milk can help in keeping at bay some of the devastating effects they bring, from inflammation to accelerated ageing.
Bear in mind, rice is rich in starch, it’s not a good idea for diabetics to opt for rice milk as it’s something that can cause blood sugar levels to spike.
Who can benefit? Anyone with a nut allergy or people looking for a gluten-free alternative.
How can you tell if your “milk alternative” 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.
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 flavourings, 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. Try checking brand websites for tips.
Now the choice is yours, choose wisely and enjoy!