Here’s which alternatives are worth it—and which aren’t
Last month, I explained why I’ve never been a fan of cow’s milk. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it just isn’t fit for human consumption. (For more details, check out the article “What’s the deal with dairy?” in the May 2019 issue.)
Of course, a trip to any supermarket proves I’m not the only one steering clear of cow’s milk. There are dozens of milk alternatives lining dairy cases these days.
In fact, non-dairy milk sales have skyrocketed by 60 percent in the past five years. The trouble is, not all of these alternatives are improvements over cow’s milk. And some are actually even worse for you.
So, let’s take a closer look at what’s out there.
Just say no to soy milk
Let’s start with soy milk. This dairy alternative has always been one of the most popular—probably because it was the first. But it isn’t my favorite, and I don’t recommend drinking it.
Sure, it contains more protein than a lot of other milk alternatives. And it also contains isoflavones, which deliver their fair share of health benefits (and protect against many age-related diseases).
But unfortunately, these health benefits come at a price—and that’s a dip in testosterone, which can spell trouble for men and women. Soy also interferes with thyroid function.
Soy happens to be a common food allergen, too. But the bigger problem is that some 94 percent of all soy products are genetically modified—and as a result, they’re saturated with industrial farming chemicals.
Finally, soybeans also contain high levels of phytic acid—an “anti-nutrient” that binds minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc and prevents your body from absorbing them.
Needless to say, this “alternative” gets a hard pass from me.
Nut milks seem like the superior choice…but be careful
In recent years, almond milk has stolen the spotlight from soy. And it’s a good thing, too. Not only does it taste great, but it’s also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which makes it extremely good for your heart, among other benefits.
But I’ll stop short of calling it a true health food, and here’s why: Nut milks are comprised mostly of water. So they don’t contain the concentrated nutrients you’d find in nuts themselves—most of which gets tossed with the nut pulp. Instead, you’ll only find trace amounts of protein, manganese, or magnesium.
The same generally holds true for cashew milk, which is a creamier alternative to almond milk, made by soaking cashews in water and then blending them. Like almond milk, it’s naturally high in vitamin E—but most of the protein and a lot of other vitamins and minerals are lost during processing.
Finally, there’s coconut milk—which, while not a true “nut” milk, is still worth noting. Coconut milk comes in a can and is generally used for cooking, not drinking. But there are numerous “coconut milk beverages” out there—which, again, are essentially just coconut milk diluted with water and other additives. You won’t find much protein, but it does feature potassium, iron, and healthy medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)—which can aid in weight management.
So if you’re looking for a milk substitute, unsweetened versions of these nut milk choices are generally the ones that I recommend.
The best—and worst—of the rest
Let’s look at another popular choice: Rice milk.
Rice milk only has one real plus…it’s safe for people with allergies to soy, dairy, or nuts. Other than that, it contains very little protein and a whole lot of carbs. Not to mention its arsenic content, which makes it especially unsuitable for kids.
Some manufacturers even throw in vegetable oil as an emulsifier and stabilizer—which isn’t an ingredient I’d recommend adding to anything.
Then you have hemp milk, which is made from the hulled seed of industrial hemp plants. This is another safe option for people with allergies—it’s also good for people on a FODMAP (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) diet for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) management.
Hemp milk contains some protein, but the thing I really like about it is that is has a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains other key nutrients, including magnesium and phytosterols, as well as some calcium, fiber, iron, and potassium.
But again, the additives are a deal breaker—in this case, it’s brown rice syrup, which is packed with arsenic and sugar. (And as I’ll explain in a moment, this is exactly the kind of thing you need to be on the lookout for in any processed and packaged milk alternative.)
Beyond these options, you also have…
- Flax milk, which is just cold-pressed flax oil mixed with water, thickeners, and emulsifiers. This option is packed with plant-based omega-3s, but as with soy, the phytoestrogen content is a mixed bag where your health is concerned.
- Oat milk, which is made from cleaned, toasted, and hulled oats—and sometimes other grains and beans, like barley, brown rice, and soy. Again, it has some nutritional content—including iron, vitamin E, and folic acid—but it’s also packed with carbs. So I don’t recommend it.
- Pea milk, which is made from milled, high-protein yellow field peas. Manufacturing separates the pea protein from the starch, so it’s a decent option as far as milk substitutes go.
- Potato milk, which is made from potatoes and mixed with water and sweeteners. This option is high in carbohydrates but low in protein. Need I say more?
This list covers most of what you can find on store shelves. Though nowadays, manufacturers have found a way to make “milk” out of just about anything—so who knows what will be available next…
The real problem with plant-based substitutes
The main thing that makes milk alternatives less appealing is that they simply don’t have the same nutritional content as dairy.
True, they can be fortified with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12—and they often are. But this would carry more weight if these plant-based beverages weren’t also packed with plenty of undesirable additives, too.
Most notably, sugar. A lot of manufacturers incorporate ingredients like rice syrup and barley malt to make their products taste better. Which is why it’s common to find 20 grams or more of sugar per serving in a lot of non-dairy milks. (Even the “healthy” ones, like almond milk.)
And that’s not to mention all the additives used to emulsify and stabilize plant-based milks. Like carrageenan, for example—a seaweed-derived additive, with links to ulcers and other gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
Store-bought non-dairy milks are also packed with all sorts of gums and other thickeners. So despite their reputation, make no mistake… they’re one of the most heavily processed “foods” out there.
If the additives don’t get you, the packaging will
Glass will always be my favorite packaging choice for any kind of milk. But most milk products, dairy or otherwise, come in wax or plastic-coated paper cartons. And that generally means one thing: Chemicals.
And yes, we’re talking about all the usual suspects:
- Bisphenols. These include BPA and its equally dangerous replacement, BPS—which are linked to obesity, early puberty, and reduced fertility, just to name a few issues.
- Perfluoroalkyl chemicals. These are commonly found in greaseproof and coated cardboard packaging, and they impair immunity and thyroid function.
- Perchlorate. This is another common plastic chemical, which hijacks thyroid function and brain health.
- Phthalates. These chemicals not only fuel obesity and insulin resistance, but they can alter male sexual development, and contribute to heart disease and diabetes.
Ultimately, this short list of industrial chemicals is one of the main reasons why whole food is preferable over any packaged, processed offerings. And store-bought non-dairy beverages definitely fall into the latter category.
Let me be clear: I’m not against plant-based milks. But the fact is, they’re really only useful as substitutes for cow’s milk—and at the end of the day, you don’t really need to be drinking milk (of any kind) at all.
That said, if you want some sort of milk alternative, your best bet is to make your own—and store it in a glass or stainless steel container. See page 6 for a simple recipe that works for most nut milks.
HOMEMADE NUT MILK
- Place nuts in a large bowl and add enough water to cover them by two inches. Let them soak for at least 12 hours. (This is an important step to keep the end result as silky as possible—the longer the nuts soak, the smoother the milk will be.)
- Drain nuts and discard soaking liquid. Purée the nuts using a food processor or blender. Add stevia and salt to taste.
- Add 4 cups of very hot (but not boiling) water. (Again, hot water will give you creamier milk.) Mix in a blender on high speed until very smooth, about 2 minutes.
- Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl, pressing down on the solids. Discard the nut pulp. Thin the nut milk with water as necessary to reach your desired consistency. Transfer to an airtight glass or stainless steel container and chill until cold. Consume within two to three days.
- “Biochemical and metabolic mechanisms by which dietary whey protein may combat obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” J Nutr Biochem. 2013 Jan;24(1):1-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2012.07.008. Epub 2012 Sep 17.