Nutrition Talk: Milk and Milk Alternatives
It seems like there's a new kind of 'milk' popping up on the shelves of my grocery store every week. I remember when there weren't many options for people who couldn't drink milk. You either had soy milk or nothing at all, and I know that many people don't love soy for one reason or another, so this meant you went without! These days, more people seem to be avoiding dairy for various reasons, so milk alternatives are part of many people's daily routines. But should they be? Is dairy really all that bad, and are milk alternatives nutritionally equivalent, or close enough to be a substitute for milk in our diets? I'm definitely not saying that you need to drink cows milk, and I believe many people have a good reason not to, but I do think there are a few things to consider when you're jumping on the milk-alternates. I'll talk about the top 3 things to watch out for here. If you're concerned about various additives in your milk alternative, check out this post on Carrageenan by Desiree Neilsen, RD.
1. Not all milk alternatives are a source of protein.
We tend to think of dairy foods as a protein source, and most of them are great sources of protein, but when we switch to dairy-alternatives I find many people aren't aware that most of these contain little or no protein. Sometimes this doesn't matter, but if you're counting on your milk or yogurt to provide your protein at a meal you might be falling short if you're using a milk alternative. At this point the only milk alternative I've consistently found that has about the same amount of protein as dairy milk is soy. Most others have 1g or less.
2. Not all milk alternatives are fortified.
Cows milk is naturally a good source of many vitamins and minerals. Many milk-alternatives are made from nuts, which are also high in vitamins and minerals. So nut milks should be high in these vitamins and minerals naturally too, right? Wrong. Nut milks are actually quite low in vitamins and minerals unless they've been fortified. This means that vitamins and minerals have been added to the milk, usually to about the level found in cows milk. If you're also counting on your milk to provide you with the calcium and other minerals you need to help keep your bones (and other things) strong, make sure it's fortified! Most milk alternatives are these days, but watch out for ones labeled 'natural' or imported from foreign countries. The easiest way to check if you're getting the vitamins and minerals from your milk alternative is to have a look at the nutrition facts table. Check to see that your milk choice is giving you about 30% of your calcium, some Vitamin D, and B12 at the very least. Chances are if it's fortified with one it will be fortified with all. I know there is some controversy about calcium in the media right now, but I'm going to save that for another day.
3. Many milk alternatives contain added sugars.
Many milk-alternatives are full of added sugars, even in the original varieties. Chocolate Silk soy milk has 17g of added sugars per cup* (over 4 teaspoons)! Silk Vanilla Coconut milk has 9g of added sugars* (over 2 teaspoons), and Silk Original Soy milk has 6g of added sugars* per cup (1.5 teaspoons). The Silk unsweetened Soy milk has only 1g of sugar*, a much better choice! I'm not picking on Silk - other brands are all very similar in nutritional content.
*all nutrition data obtained from Silk.com/products
So... after all of that, what milk do you choose?
I'd say there isn't one right choice, it all depends on what you're looking for. Personally I count on my milk for calcium and some protein, so I often go for dairy or soy. I always go for unsweetened varieties of any milk, and I might use a milk alternative for it's certain flavour on the occasion, but to be honest I often prefer the taste of cow or soy over most others. Here's a quick run-down on a few common options.
Cows milk - gives you protein, calcium, and many other vitamins and minerals. Also contains natural sugars (with emphasis on the natural).
Soy milk (fortified) - close in protein content to cows milk, and generally similar in nutrients if it's fortified. I always go for an organic unsweetened variety when it comes to soy.
Almond milk (fortified) - minimal protein (I wouldn't count it), but similar vitamins and minerals to cows milk, and when you choose unsweetened is usually very low cal (it has very little fat).
Coconut milk (fortified) - no protein, and very little carb, which means pretty much all of your calories are coming from fat. Not necessarily a bad thing depending on what you're looking for, but do be aware that most of the fat in coconut is saturated fat.
Most other milk alternatives (including rice milk) fall somewhere along the spectrum between almond and coconut in terms of nutrition - minimal protein, low cal if they're unsweetened, and varying amounts of fat (coconut is the highest). For more information on choosing the best milk for you, contact your dietitian!