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The best plant-based alternatives to cows' milk.

For years, the only milks found in most grocery store dairy cases were cows' and soy. But recently, we've seen the addition of almond, coconut, and more. With the growing availability and popularity of milks sourced from plants rather than animals, it's key to know how these products measure up to the original in terms of nutrition.

Calcium comparison. Cow's milk has always been considered a great source of bone-building calcium; however, many of the alternatives contain little or none in their natural form, and calcium is usually added. "Check the ingredients list: If a calcium compound, such as calcium carbonate, is listed, then you know the product contains added calcium," advises Alissa Lupu, RD, a dietitian at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

In these instances, the calcium you're consuming is similar to what you would get in a supplement. It's important to be aware of your total daily calcium intake, especially in supplemental form, to avoid getting excessive amounts. (The recommended daily intake of calcium for women age 50 or under is 1,000 milligrams [mg], and 1,200 mg for women age 51 and older.) Also, your body can process only 500 mg of calcium at a time, so if you use a plant-based milk on your cereal in the morning and you also take a calcium supplement, wait until later in the day to take the supplement.

Other nutrients and ingredients. Vitamin D also is a key nutrient, since it promotes calcium absorption and has other important functions. Both animal- and plant-sourced milks are fortified with vitamin D.

Plant-based milks have an advantage in some areas: They are cholesterol-free, as are all plant foods, and they generally are low in total fat and contain little or no saturated fat. The exception is coconut milk, which contains the same amount of saturated fat as whole cows' milk. Cholesterol content in cows' milk ranges from 5g in nonfat milk to 24 g in whole milk.

Added sugar is another ingredient to consider. Unflavored cows' milk contains no added sugar, although it does contain the naturally occurring sugar lactose. Plant milks that are flavored, including many "original" varieties, often contain added sugar. To avoid added sugar, choose products with the word "unsweetened" on the label.

How they perform. Any milk alternatives can be used on top of cereal or in coffee, but you may notice a difference in taste, which may take some time to get used to. For example, almond and soy milks are very creamy and slightly nutty. Coconut and rice milk can be a bit sweeter and, while coconut milk is creamy, rice milk tends to be thinner than its animal-based counterpart. Hemp milk, while creamy, has a much more distinctive flavor.

When it comes to baking and cooking, most plant-based milks can be used as an equal substitute for milk in recipes, especially soy and almond milks. Coconut milk is a fabulous addition to curries, sauces, soups, and any other Indian or tropical recipes you enjoy. As for rice milk, Lupu advises, "When used in baking, you may need an additional binding agent like eggs, flour, or xanthan gum. In addition, products may be drier than expected, or may require a longer cooking time."

There are a number of reasons people don't consume cows' milk. Fortunately, with so many nutritionally sound alternatives on the market, it's just a matter of choosing the best substitute(s) for your needs.


8-OUNCE                            PROTEIN    TOTAL FAT
SERVING SIZE           CALORIES      (G)         (G)


Whole                     150         8           8
1% Fat                    105        8.5         2.5
Nonfat                    90          8           0


Original Unsweetened      90          <1         2.5
Vanilla Enriched          130         1          2.5


Original, Light           60          6           0
Vanilla, Light            70          6          1.5


Original Unsweetened      30          1          2.5
Vanilla Unsweetened       30          1          2.5


Original                  80          0           5
Vanilla                   90          0           5


Unsweetened Original      70          2           6
Unsweetened Vanilla       70          2           6

8-OUNCE                SATURATED      TOTAL     CALCIUM    VITAMIN
SERVING SIZE            FAT (G)     CARBS (G)     (MG)      D (IU)


Whole                      5           12         300      115-124
1% Fat                    1.5          13         300      115-124
Nonfat                     0           13         300      115-124


Original Unsweetened       0           15         300        100
Vanilla Enriched           0           26         300        100


Original, Light            0            5         450        120
Vanilla, Light             0            7         450        120


Original Unsweetened       0            1         450        100
Vanilla Unsweetened        0            1         450        100


Original                   5           7          450        100
Vanilla                    5            9         450        100


Unsweetened Original      0.5           1         300        100
Unsweetened Vanilla       0.5           1         300        100
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Title Annotation:HEALTHY EATING
Publication:Women's Nutrition Connection
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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