In the last few years, supermarket shelves have offered several plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk. Soy milk has been available for many years, and recent offerings include “milk” based on almonds, rice, and coconut. Just published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology is a study by McGill University (Canada) of these milks, and here is a summary.
Why choose an alternative?
First, why would someone choose to buy a milk alternative, especially since they are all much more expensive than regular cow’s milk? The first reason would be lactose intolerance. Depending on race, your intestinal health, age, and other factors, between 15% and 75% of adults don’t have enough lactase enzyme to break down the lactose sugar in cow’s milk. Even a higher percentage of those of Asian, Indigenous, and African heritage are lactose intolerant.
Other people seeking alternatives may have a milk allergy, which is more common in children. Up to 4% of children have a milk allergy, although most outgrow this by adolescence. Another group seeking alternatives are those vegetarians who avoid dairy.
Summary: Unsweetened dairy-free milks
Pros: High in protein and calcium
Good balance of fats, protein, and carbohydrates
High content of phytonutrients (may decrease cancer risk)
Closest to cow’s milk in terms of nutrition
Cons: Some people don’t like flavor
Some don’t like because is GMO soy or may potentially have anti-androgenic effects (though most research does not substantiate these health concerns)
Pros: Most people like the flavor
Low in calories
High in healthy monosaturated fats (helps lower “bad” cholesterol)
Cons: Relatively low in protein
Pros: Low in calories and carbohydrates
May help lower “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol
Cons: Low in nutrients
Pros: Good for the (very rare) person allergic to soy and almonds
Cons: High calories
Low in nutrients
Low in protein
Especially children can suffer nutritional deficiencies if their diet is based on rice milk
Soy is the winner
The Canadian scientists rated soy milk as the best all-around milk alternative. It is closest in nutrition to cow’s milk. Almond milk is the second choice nutritionally. Coconut milk may be best if low calories and low carbohydrates are most important for you. Finally, rice milk is the weakest in nutrition, and there in not much reason to choose this unless you are the very rare person with almond and soy allergies.
For various reasons, some people do not like cow’s milk, but its composition is closest to human milk. It has the highest nutritional value, and costs the least. You might consider organic cow’s milk if you can find it. However you have these other alternatives to consider, with soy the overall best choice nutritionally.
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