It seems that dairy is usually the first group of foods that people eliminate from their diet when having indigestion or irritable bowel symptoms. In turn, they typically choose to replace dairy with products like soy milk, rice milk, or almond milk. These products are quite popular as they are advertised as vegan-friendly, lactose-free, and fortified with calcium and vitamin D. As time has progressed, other dairy-free “milk” alternatives have been added to the market coming from sources such as coconuts, cashews, and quinoa.
While these products give a dairy-free option for people with lactose-intolerance, we often see healthy people choose milk alternatives solely to follow the popular nutrition fad at the time instead of out of medical necessity, such as a milk allergy. It is imperative that we educate ourselves on the health benefits of dairy products and what nutrients may be missing or lacking in the diet if we choose to eliminate them.
Almond milk is one of the most popular dairy-free milk alternatives.
But is it actually a healthy choice? Cow’s milk provides us with nutrients such as calcium, protein, vitamin B12, and riboflavin. While calcium and vitamin D are added into almond milk during processing, it lacks the other nutrients that cow’s milk provides us with. For most adults, it is recommended that a person consume 10-35% of their diet from protein sources. Dairy provides protein that allows the body to build and repair muscle and tissues as well as providing the foundation for cartilage, skin, and bones. An 8-oz serving of almond milk provides about 1 g of protein compared to 8 g from 2% cow’s milk. There is hardly any protein in almond milk! Protein is important to consume during aging because of the natural muscle degeneration.
Added sugars are a huge culprit in almond milk! To provide a more satisfying taste for consumers, almond milk comes in a several flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Adding these flavors usually means adding unnecessary sugars into the almond milk. Sugar is typically the second most abundant ingredient in these products.
One 8-oz serving of sweetened chocolate almond milk contains up to 20 g of sugar compared to 12g of 2% cow’s milk. It is important to point out that the sugars (lactose) in dairy products are natural sugars and are not added. While dairy alternatives may seem like a healthy choice, be aware of what you actually are drinking. If you choose to purchase a dairy-free product, try choosing the unsweetened version to reduce unnecessary sugar intake.
One thing that is often overlooked is the high level of processing almond milk undergoes. Due to the processing, many additives and preservatives are included. These additives include substances such as xanthan gum or gellan gum, which are used as a thickener to achieve a creamy mouthfeel. Cow’s milk does not include any of these additives. The only substances added to cow’s milk are typically vitamin A and vitamin D.
While some people may a digestive intolerance to dairy products, the food group as a whole is recommended to be included in the daily diet for those otherwise healthy. Cow’s milk provides the body with many nutrients not found in almond milk. Cow’s milk also avoids unnecessary added substances such as sugar and food thickeners, which are often added into almond milk. Consider all of the health facts before choosing your next milk or milk alternative.
Thank you to dietetic intern Molly Lowery for her creation of and contributions to this blog post.
Cruise the dairy aisle of your nearest grocery store and the “milk” aisle will blow you away.
Most likely because there’s a decreasing amount of conventional cow’s milk available for sale but a LOT of milk alternatives.
So what exactly is a milk alternative – and who might benefit from drinking one?
Milk alternatives are non-cow’s milk beverages that provide some (or in some cases, all) of the nutrient benefits of milk.
These includes foods like almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk and rice milk.
But you have to be careful when it comes to milk substitutes because not all of them are created the same.
Cow’s milk is hands down the best source of dietary calcium. It is very well absorbed and found in higher quantities in dairy foods than in any other food category.
But some people can’t handle cow’s milk, either because of allergy, intolerance, or personal preference.
Most milk substitutes today do contain calcium – but always check your labels. There’s no point in drinking a milk substitute if it is not fortified with calcium.
Cow’s milk is a great source of protein, with about 8 grams per cup of cow’s milk. Many milk substitutes do contain protein, but some don’t have as much as you would think.
A good example of this is almond milk. Almond milk (even though it comes from high protein almonds) retains very little protein after processing.
You’re likely getting enough protein elsewhere in your diet, but especially for children you want to make sure that almond milk is a good fit (by checking with your primary care practitioner or dietitian) if you’re withholding cow’s milk for whatever reason.
Cow’s milk contains 12 grams of sugar per cup – but it’s naturally occurring milk sugar, lactose.
Many milk substitutes have added sugar in the form of vanilla or other flavoring. Nobody needs to be getting added sugars from their milk substitutes, so look instead for plain or unsweetened versions if you’re looking at a substitutes.
The bottom line is: milk alternatives can be a good way for a person who doesn’t drink cow’s milk to get some important nutrients. You do have to be an educated consumer though, and read those labels, to make sure you’re really getting the best bet when it comes to an alternative.