Not Milk?

Whether you‚re looking for a solution to lactose intolerance, fretting over the carbon footprint of big dairy farming or just want a little variety, you are in luck. The options in the faux milk section seem to grow daily. You can now sport a white mustache that comes from almonds, oats and even hemp. But with confusing terminology adorning the cartons and popular misconceptions about some products health benefits, choosing the milk alternative that is best for you can make training for a marathon seem simple. Use this guide to maximize your buying power: learn what to look for on a label and how these drinks stack up on taste and nutrition.By Matthew G. Kadey, M.S., R.D.
Courtesy of Her Sports + Fitness magazine

Label Savvy
In health circles, few plant-based foods have garnered a better rep than soy. But if you think any soy drink is the ticket to a better you, it’s time for a reality check. Soy and other milk alternatives can be loaded with sugar and much lower in protein than regular milk, so you need to read the label carefully. Follow these tips to make the healthiest selection.

Choose a milk look-alike

If you are using these beverages as a replacement for traditional milk, it’s best they resemble it nutritionally, says Tara Gidus, M.S., R.D., an Orlando-based sports dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. To do this, she advises you find one with a respectable amount of protein‚ nonfat milk rings in at eight grams per cup. (Soy and hemp beverages put in the best performance when it comes to this macronutrient.)

Most nutritionists also stress that you should only put brands in your shopping cart that bear the label fortified. This means minerals such as calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D have been added to the product. Scan the nutrition facts and look for at least 30 percent of the daily value for calcium, says Gidus.

Take a close look at the vitamin D content as well. Vitamin D, found in few foods, improves calcium absorption, and, according to an increasing number of new studies, can reduce cancer risk. Why are non-milk drinkers being shortchanged? Vitamin D3 is animal-derived, so in order to create vegan-friendly drinks, plant-derived D2 is employed. If you drink only non-milk products and don’t eat other dairy, you may need to take a daily vitamin D supplement to make up the difference.

However, Gidus notes that some consumers aren’t looking for a milk look-alike. If you just want a beverage to enjoy and are getting nutrients found in milk elsewhere, make your selection based on taste.

Watch out for sugar
A glass of milk harbors roughly 12 grams of natural sugar in the form of lactose. Flavored milk-alternative drinks can contain more than 20 grams of sugar per cup. So do your waistline a favor and consider sugar amounts closely. If sweeteners such as cane juice or brown rice syrup are one of the first ingredients, expect a fairly good dose of the sweet stuff, says Anne VanBeber, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition professor at Texas Christian University. Labels that say original or unsweetened often have less sugar than chocolate and vanilla versions which, depending on the brand, can be tantamount to liquid syrup. In fact, some unflavored versions have less sugar than cows milk.

Don’t avoid good-for-you fat
Almost all the fat in soy and other milk alternatives is heart-healthy unsaturated fat. Milk contains mostly undesirable saturated fat, says VanBeber. So don’t worry if the drink isn’t labeled low-fat‚ and focus on the unsaturated fat values.

Go green
If you are looking to turn over a greener leaf, opt for organic non-dairy beverages. Doing so will mean your plant-based milk is produced without any genetically modified ingredients or dangerous chemicals. (Take note: Much of North America’s soy is subjected to science.) This will be an environmental choice, as there is not much difference nutritionally between organic and regular says Gidus.

White Wash

Not all non-dairy drinks are created equal. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. Here is how the big five compare.

Taste Test: New processing techniques have vastly improved the taste of soy milk (thank goodness). But like high quality chocolate, each brand has its own unique taste. Shop around until you find one that pleases your palate. A good soy drink will have a thicker, richer texture than milk.

Brownie Points: There is data indicating that soy’s isoflavones can help fight off heart disease and some cancers,says Gidus. Replacing cow for bean in your smoothie may also reduce your LDL cholesterol a few points. And, because soybeans are a natural source of iron, soy milk contains this important mineral that active women are commonly deficient in. (Cow’s milk has no iron.) Soy milk also has the most protein of any non-dairy beverage. This makes it a good choice post-exercise when muscles need protein to repair and get stronger, says Gidus.

Turning Sour: Soy contains phytoestrogens, a plant-based compound that scientists think may help prevent some cancers. But there iss debate in the research community about the potentially negative effects of consuming too much. A few cups of soy milk a day should pose little risk, says VanBeber. If you are worried, stick to the recommended amount of 25 grams per day. Also, much like the lactose present in milk, soy has its own tummy disturber: non-digestible carbohydrates called oligosaccharides. As these substances are broken down by bacteria in the gut, stomach discomfort can occur in some people. Soy milk may also curdle at higher temperatures making cooking a trickier undertaking.

What to try:

Whole Foods 365 Organic Original Fortified Soy Beverage (
Per cup: 90 calories, 3.5 grams fat, 6 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate (6 grams sugar)

Silk Soymilk Plus Omega-3 DHA (
Per cup: 110 calories, 5 grams fat, 7 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrate (6 grams sugar)

Taste Test: Its mildly sweet taste and smooth texture continue to make rice milk a popular non-dairy option.

Brownie Points: Rice is considered one of the least allergenic foods and its milk is free of lactose, so it’s a godsend for milk lovers with dairy allergies.

Turning Sour: Apart from the added vitamins and minerals, Gidus says, rice milk does not offer many nutritional highlights, and has a less than impressive amount of protein. Rice milk also contains more sugar than soy milk.

What to try:

Rice Dream Enriched Original (
Per cup: 120 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 1 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrate (10 grams sugar)

Taste Test: Made from ground almonds and filtered water, almond milk has a creamy consistency similar to soy milk and a slight nutty taste that works well in smoothies.

Brownie points: Typically lower in calories than its competitors, the almonds provide vitamin E, calcium and desirable unsaturated fat, says VanBeber. Since it doesn’t curdle at high temperatures, almond milk can replace cow’s milk in most recipes.

Turning sour: Like rice milk, this one isn’t a protein heavyweight. Choose an unsweetened version to keep sugar in check.

What to try:

Almond Breeze Unsweetened Chocolate (
Per cup: 45 calories, 3.5 grams fat, 2 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrate (0 grams sugar)

Pacific Foods Unsweetened Vanilla (
Per cup: 45 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 1 gram protein, 3 grams carbohydrate (0 grams sugar)

Taste test: Oat milk has a slightly sweet taste and light consistency, which makes it a great alternative to cream.

Brownie points: There’s more protein than almond or rice milk, plus a couple grams of fiber to boot. Some of this is the soluble fiber found in oats, which may reduce cholesterol levels, says Gidus.

Turning Sour: Similar to rice milk, oat milk contains a relatively high amount of natural sugar. So those with blood sugar problems will want to err on the side of caution when it comes to portions.

What to try:

Pacific Foods Plain (
Per cup: 130 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 4 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrate (19 grams sugar)

Taste test: Rich and creamy with an unmistakable nutty flavor, hemp milk entered the market in 2006. Make sure to give it a good shake before pouring.

Brownie points: Made from shelled hempseeds, hemp milk has a high naturally occurring omega fat content, which helps maintain a healthy heart, sharp mind and strong bones. It’s also one of the few dietary sources of a fat called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which may help ward off inflammatory diseases such as Alzheimer‚ arthritis and heart disease. This far-out milk is also free of allergens such as lactose, gluten and oligosaccharides and contains respectable amounts of high-quality protein, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and vitamin E.
Turning sour: If you’re looking for a milk-like experience, hemp could be a disappointment because of its unique and distinctive flavor.

What to try:

Manitoba Harvest Original HempBliss (

Per cup: 110 calories, 7 grams fat, 5 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrate (6 grams sugar)

Living Harvest Original Hempmilk (

Per cup: 130 calories, 3 grams fat, 4 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrate (15 grams sugar)

Matthew Kadey is a Canada-based dietitian, freelance writer and photographer (

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