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.