Inspired by my last post, this week I’m diving into dairy and dairy alternatives. Cheers!
If I sent my husband to the grocery store to “grab some milk” … heaven help him. These days, there are hundreds of milk options for consumers … and that’s a good thing! Different milks and milk-like beverages help meet our individual needs. However, sometimes it can be overwhelming and confusing. Let’s break it down.
Overview: I’ll start with the OG of milks. Humans began consuming cow’s milk shortly after cattle were domesticated, approximately 8,500 years ago.1 While milk consumption varied by region and culture, the industrial revolution notably ramped up its production, distribution, and demand.1 Ever since, milk has unofficially partnered with coffee, cereal and cookies.
Processing: The milk we drink today is often pasteurized and homogenized. This is a good thing. Pasteurization heats milk to destroy harmful bacteria, and prevents us from dealing with things like tuberculosis. Homogenization is the physical emulsification process that prevents milk from creaming which gives it a nice uniform consistency.
Nutrition: Nutrition-wise, cow’s milk offers 13 essential nutrients including high-quality protein and 3 of the 4 nutrients of public health concern (calcium, vitamin D, and potassium). Health-wise, milk and dairy intake have been linked to improved weight and bone mass and lower risk of metabolic disorders, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer … just to name a few.2-4
However, milk is a common allergy, particularly in young children.5 In these cases, it is best to avoid dairy products because an allergic reaction can be life-threatening. For other folks, dairy may lead to unpleasant digestive symptoms caused by lactose intolerance. Lactose (the natural sugar found in dairy) is digested by the lactase enzyme. Many of us don’t make enough lactase to breakdown lactose, particularly descendants of East Asia, Africa, Greece, Italy, Arab nations, Native America and Ashkenazi Jews.6,7 If that’s the case for you, opt for lactose-free milks that add the lactase enzyme. Don’t get it twisted, lactose-free milks are 100% legitimate milk. You’ll get all the nutritional benefits without “crappy” side effects.
If you don’t have a lactose intolerance, rock on! Thanks to natural selection, many of us are lucky enough to express that lactase enzyme and enjoy lattes well into our adult years.7 And, “if it ain’t broke …”
Best Bet: Skim vs. Low-fat vs. Whole … Which milk comes out on top? Well, it’s complicated.
- Calories: Skim and low-fat milk have fewer calories than whole milk. This can be a consideration if you’re watching your weight.
- Satiation: While whole milk may be higher in calories, it may leave you feeling fuller and less likely to overeat. This is also a consideration if you’re watching your weight.
- Saturated fat: There’s a strong body of research linking saturated fat to increased LDL (bad) cholesterol and risk of heart disease. However, there’s some emerging research that links dairy-based fatty acids to reduced risk of heart disease, making researchers say, “holy cow!”3 This may be related to the unique nutritional benefits of dairy’s food matrix.
- Vitamins: When you skim the fat off milk, you lose fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K). That’s why skim and low-fat milk are often fortified (btw, fortification is an amazing thing and keeps populations from experiencing things like rickets and birth defects). However, there is conflicting evidence about which milk types are better for absorbing these fat-soluble vitamins.8,9 So it’s something to keep in mind.
The Skim on Cow’s Milk
Cow’s milk offers an affordable and accessible source of many nutrients. They’re made with different fat levels and also come in lactose-free forms to accommodate individual needs. However, folks with cow’s milk allergies should avoid dairy foods. Choose the best fit for your individual needs.
The demand for non-dairy milk has steadily risen over the past few decades.11 While they each offer non-dairy milk alternatives, they can also fall short in some nutritional areas too. Let’s break it down.
Overview: Almond beverage is the product of water mixed with ground and soaked almonds. It offers a low-calorie and low-carb option that’s dairy-free, soy-free, vegan and super versatile. It has a thin texture, slight nutty flavor and is available in unsweetened flavors like vanilla and chocolate.
Processing: Unlike dairy milk, almond beverage often requires extra things like thickeners (xanthan or gellan gum) and emulsifiers (sunflower lecithin) for consistency and shelf stability. Carrageenan, an extract from seaweed, was once a common thickening agent used in most almond beverages. However, it’s rarely used these days due to potential inflammatory effects.12 While some scientists claim it should be avoided, other researchers believe it’s totally fine and that its risks have been blown out of proportion.13 So keep your eyes out for more research.
Nutrition: While almonds are naturally nutrient-dense foods (high in protein, fiber, vitamin E, and monounsaturated fat), their impressive profile doesn’t translate well to the watered-down beverage version.11 Almond beverages are low in protein, but often fortified to be a good source of calcium and vitamins A, D, and E.
Overview: Similar to almond beverage, cashew alternatives are a cocktail of ground, soaked and sometimes roasted cashews with water.1 They offer a low-calorie and low-carb option that’s dairy-free, soy-free vegan and also super versatile. They can taste creamier than almond milk and also come in fun unsweetened flavors too.
Processing: Similar to other alternatives, cashew beverage requires extra things like thickeners (locust bean or gellan gum) and emulsifiers (sunflower lecithin) for consistency and shelf stability.
Nutrition: While cashews are a good source of protein, monounsaturated fat and magnesium, its watered-down beverage version is low in protein, but fortified to be a good source of calcium and vitamins A, D, and E.
Overview: Oat beverage is a mix of strained and soaked oats that’s blended with water. It offers a nut-free milk alternative that’s also dairy-free, soy-free and vegan. Due to the absorbent qualities of oats (thank you fiber), it has a pleasant creamy texture.
Processing: No surprise here. Like the other dairy-alternatives, oat beverage requires a little help to get a good consistency and to stay fresh. Many varieties often contain sunflower lecithin, locust bean gum, gellan gum, ascorbic acid and sometimes sunflower oil.
Nutrition: Oat beverage runs a bit higher in calories and carbohydrates compared to the nut-based options because it naturally offers more fiber and protein. It’s often fortified to offer nutrients like calcium, vitamin A, D, B12 and riboflavin (B2). Oat beverages that use sunflower oil as an emulsifier tend to be higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the good kind).
Overview: Soy products have been used for thousands of years. Commercially, they’ve been a milk alternative for more than 40 years.11 Soy beverage is made of ground and soaked soybeans that are mixed with water. It has a beige-like color and a slightly beany flavor.
Processing: As a plant-based beverage, it often requires thickeners (like gellan gum) and preservatives (ascorbic acid).
Nutrition: Fun fact – the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified fortified soy beverage as the only true “substitute” for dairy milk, thanks to its comparable nutritional profile.1 Soy beverage is higher in protein compared to other milk alternatives and is often fortified with the usual go-to’s like calcium, vitamins A, D, B12 and riboflavin (B2). Research has linked soy’s isoflavones to a number of health benefits and the prevention of chronic disease.11,14,15 There have been concerns about how isoflavones can affect our hormones because of their estrogen-like properties. However, after exhaustive research and reviews, folks like the European Food Safety Authority and the North American Menopause Society all deem soy to be nutritious and safe.14
Best Bet: Almond vs. Cashew vs. Oat vs. Soy? Similar to dairy, it’s not exactly straight forward.
- Calories: Almond and cashew beverages are lower in calories than oat and soy options. However, oat and soy milks have more fiber and protein – a powerful pair that makes you feel more satiated (and less likely to consume more). These can be considerations if you’re watching your weight.
- Taste/texture: Different uses (coffee, smoothies, baking) may warrant different tastes and textures. Almond beverage runs watery while oat beverage is more creamy but can separate more easily in coffee. Soy beverages can sometimes have a beany-like flavor.
- Nutrients: Fortification makes each option a good source of calcium and vitamin D. However, in my opinion, soy milk comes out on top as far as the most nutritional bang for your buck. It offers high-quality protein and isoflavones – all packed into an 80-calorie serving.
The Skim on Milk Alternatives
Milk alternatives offer options for folks with allergies, intolerances and individual diet preferences. While they can be used instead of dairy milk for culinary purposes, nutritionally they should not be considered the same (except for fortified soy beverage). This is particularly important for toddlers and growing children. If you choose to swap dairy for alternative beverages, be sure to adjust the rest of your diet as necessary to make up for the nutritional differences.
Whichever milk alternative you choose, aim to pick the fortified and unsweetened versions. Pro-tip: shake the container! All the added nutrients settle at the bottom.
Whether you’re topping off a glass, pouring a bowl, pulsing a smoothie or lightening up the color of your coffee, each type of milk or milk-like beverage offers something unique. Choose the option that best fits into your lifestyle, your overall diet needs, and your individual health goals.
Megan proudly works for National Dairy Council to support America’s dairy farmers. This article was written before her employment and all views in this blog are her own.
- Edelstein, S. (2019). Food Science. An Ecological Approach. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
- Thorning, T. K., Raben, A., Tholstrup, T., Soedamah-Muthu, S. S., Givens, I., & Astrup, A. (2016). Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Food Nutr Res, 60, 32527. doi:10.3402/fnr.v60.32527
- de Oliveira Otto, M. C., Lemaitre, R. N., Song, X., King, I. B., Siscovick, D. S., & Mozaffarian, D. (2018). Serial measures of circulating biomarkers of dairy fat and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr, 108(3), 476-484. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy117
- Pfeuffer M, Watzl B (2018) Nutrition and health aspects of milk and dairy products and their ingredients. Ernahrungs Umschau 65(2): 22–33.e14–e17
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. (2019). Milk & Dairy Allergy. Accessed at http://acaai.org/allergies/types-allergies/food-allergy/types-food-allergy/milk-dairy-allergy
- NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019) Lactose Intolerance. Accessed at https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/lactose-intolerance#statistics
- Bhatnagar, S., & Aggarwal, R. (2007). Lactose intolerance. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 334(7608), 1331–1332. doi:10.1136/bmj.39252.524375.80
- Dawson-Hughes, B., Harris, S. S., Lichtenstein, A. H., Dolnikowski, G., Palermo, N. J., & Rasmussen, H. (2015). Dietary Fat Increases Vitamin D-3 Absorption. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115(2), 225-230. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.09.014
- Tangpricha, V., Koutkia, P., Rieke, S. M., Chen, T. C., Perez, A. A., & Holick, M. F. (2003). Fortification of orange juice with vitamin D: a novel approach for enhancing vitamin D nutritional health. Am J Clin Nutr, 77(6), 1478-1483. doi:10.1093/ajcn/77.6.1478
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
- Vanga, S. K., & Raghavan, V. (2018). How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? Journal of Food Science and Technology, 55(1), 10-20. doi:10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y
- Tobacman, J. K. (2001). Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environmental Health Perspectives, 109(10), 983-994. doi:doi:10.1289/ehp.01109983
- Bixler, H. J. (2017). The carrageenan controversy. Journal of Applied Phycology, 29(5), 2201-2207. doi:10.1007/s10811-017-1132-4
- Messina, M. (2016). Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature. Nutrients, 8(12). doi:10.3390/nu8120754
- Shekhar, H.S., Howlader, Z.H., & Kabir, Y. (2017). Exploring the Nutrition and Health Benefits of Functional Foods. Hershey, PA: Medical Information Science Reference.