The Scoop On Milk Alternatives

Cows have had a rough time as of late. A growing number of Americans are seeking out alternatives to cow’s milk, citing traditional milk’s high levels of saturated fat and stomach-irritating lactose. “Milk” made with soy, almonds, rice and other foods and substances are enjoying their day in the sun, but it’s important to know that just because it’s created with a health food, that doesn’t make it automatically healthy.

Here’s the lowdown on the pros and cons of several popular cow’s milk alternatives:

Soy milk
Pros: Made from soybeans, this is the milk alternative trail blazer, and traditionally the go-to for the lactose intolerant and health-conscious. Unlike other milk alternatives, it contains moderate-to-high protein levels and is the closest to matching cow’s milk’s enviable 8 grams of protein. Vitamin D, B vitamins, potassium and calcium are also added to the formula for an extra nutritive boost and it has very low levels of saturated fat. Soy milk is typically priced cheaper than other kinds, and blends well with smoothies, coffee and cereal.

Cons: While unsweetened soy milk contains a gram or fewer of sugar, flavored varieties can include up to 8 grams or more of the sweet stuff. This is a downside of most milk alternatives, with people choosing the sweetened flavors over unsweetened. Soy milk is also thicker than other milk types, which some people don’t enjoy.

Coconut milk
Pros: With 30 to 45 percent of your daily recommended value for calcium, coconut milk can have more calcium than cow's milk. It contains Vitamin D and B12, and is low in carbohydrates and sodium. A unique benefit of coconut milk is that it also contains a lot of lauric acid, which is a healthy fat that improves levels of good cholesterol in the body. It's also formulated to more closely mimic the creaminess of cow's milk.

Cons: It has 4.5-5 grams of fat, including saturated fat, which is more than the other milk alternatives, and doesn't contain any protein. It can solidify, which is inconvenient, and has a rich taste that whole milk lovers will enjoy but that skim fans may not like. It also tends to be more expensive than other milk alternatives.

Sorry, cow. There's some new types of milk in town.

Almond milk
Pros: Almond milk has a smooth, lightly sweet taste that makes it easy to add to coffee, cereal and baked goods or enjoyable to just drink on its own. It has high calcium levels comparative to that of cow's milk, and has less fat and fewer calories. It's frequently fortified with Vitamin D and naturally contains Vitamin E, which supports healthy skin, hair and nails, magnesium, which supports energy production and detoxification and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, it has the highest concentration of minerals and vitamins compared to coconut and rice milk.

Cons: Sweetened varieties of almond milk contain high levels of sugar, and have a very low level of protein. Additionally, flavored almond milk can contain artificial additives and preservatives, so be sure to check the label. And of course, almond milk is off limits to those with nut allergies.

Rice milk
Pros: Rice milk is generally the best option for those with food, soy and nut allergies. It has low amounts of calories and fats, is fortified with Vitamin B12 and calcium and is typically inexpensive. It also has a mild sweet flavor that makes it great for baking.

Cons: Rice milk is naturally high in sugar, and it contains little protein and nutrients like Vitamin A. Studies have found that rice products, like rice milk, contain arsenic, a carcinogen, so it is recommended that people have less than 1/2 cup per day and that children under five years old don't regularly consume it.

"Oat milk contains phytochemicals that promote heart health."

Hemp milk
Pros: Hemp milk is rich with good-for-you fats. It includes half of your recommended daily value of omega-3 fatty acids and also contains omega-6 fatty acids, both of which support heart health and cognitive function. It also includes beta-carotene, fiber, iron and potassium, is low in sugar and contains no cholesterol.

Cons: Hemp has to be imported from Canada since it is currently illegal to grow it in the U.S., so hemp milk can be hard to find and sports high prices. Hemp milk tastes a bit like beans, so it may be a difficult taste to adjust to for some. It doesn't contain much calcium or protein, and is frequently made with sweeteners like brown rice syrup, which may contain arsenic.

Oat milk
Pros: Oat milk contains no cholesterol, and in fact, research shows that drinking oat milk can lower the levels of bad cholesterol in the body and raise good cholesterol levels. It has high amounts of protein and fiber and contains phytochemicals that promote heart health. It also contains calcium and Vitamins A, D and E and iron.

Cons: Oat milk is typically high in sugar and should be avoided by those with gluten sensitivities. It's relatively new to the alternative milk market, too, so it can be hard to find.

Whatever your dietary needs and preferences, there's a milk out there to make you happy. Just make sure that you are aware of the nutritional content of each milk type and choose unsweetened varieties over sweetened.

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