At one time, you were pretty limited in what you could put in your coffee. It was full-fat, 2%, or non-fat milk. If you wanted a non-dairy milk alternative, you were stuck with soy milk. Fast forward to today. Now you can choose from a dizzying array of “alternative,” non-dairy milk, including almond milk, coconut milk, hazelnut milk, rice milk, hemp milk, and cashew milk. These non-dairy options are made from extracts derived from plant sources such as nuts and seeds. With so many milk alternatives, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. Need some guidance? Here are some tips to help you make the healthiest selection.
Look for a Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives That Are Carrageenan Free
Carrageenan is an emulsifier that manufacturers add too many non-dairy milk products and some dairy products as well. It sounds like a healthy alternative since carrageenan comes from red seaweed. Yet, animal studies link carrageenan with intestinal inflammation and, possibly, a higher risk of colon cancer. Manufacturers add it to non-dairy milk to give the product a thicker texture. Fortunately, there are alternatives to carrageenan as a thickener, one of them being xanthan gum. Due to public demand and concern, many manufacturers are taking carrageenan out of products. So, carrageenan-free options are growing. Read the ingredient list and choose a brand that doesn’t contain this emulsifier.
Milk Alternatives: No Added Sugar is Best
Sugar is in enough stuff. Who needs added sugar in milk too? Fortunately, manufacturers of alternative milk are getting the message. A number of brands now offer non-dairy milk options, including almond, coconut, and cashew, that have no added sugar. These products are typically low in carbs and low glycemic as well. Again, read the label and make sure it says zero grams of added sugar. Some milk alternatives contain a significant amount of sugar in one form or another.
Milk Alternatives: Consider the Protein Content
You need more protein if you work out regularly. That’s why some people drink dairy milk. Non-dairy milk options vary widely in how much protein they contain. You might enjoy the taste of almond, rice, cashew, and coconut milk but they’re relatively low in protein. For example, almond milk has only about 1 gram of protein per serving. Contrast that with soy milk, which has around 8 grams of protein per cup. It has the distinction of being the only milk substitute on the market with almost as much protein as dairy milk.
Milk Alternatives: Read the Label
Non-dairy milk alternatives are typically low in vitamin D and calcium. But manufacturers usually add these and other vitamins and minerals to their products to boost their nutritional value. Read the label carefully. Some brands are generous with the synthetic vitamins and minerals they add, in some cases, maybe TOO generous. For example, if you’re over the age of 50, you probably don’t need a milk substitute with added iron. Consuming too much iron can be harmful, especially if you’re past menopause. One way to get around this is to make your own milk alternatives. You can find recipes for doing this online.
Milk Alternatives: Other Considerations
Unless you buy organic soy milk, it’s probably made with genetically modified soybeans. If you’re trying to avoid GMOs and enjoy soy milk, buy organic. Another concern is the amount of arsenic in rice milk. Rice is one of the biggest sources of inorganic arsenic, a toxin. When the FDA tested a wide variety of rice products, they found inorganic arsenic levels ranging from 1 ppb to 160 ppb, enough to be of concern. If you consume rice products every day, you could be putting yourself at risk. Kids, especially, should avoid consuming rice products every day since their bodies are smaller and it doesn’t take as much to be toxic.
Why Would You Want to Use Milk Alternatives?
One of the most common reasons people turn to non-dairy milk is lactose intolerance. Around 65% of the adult population has problems breaking down lactose, a sugar in dairy products. When you don’t adequately break this sugar down, bacteria in your gut ferment it and produce gas. As you might imagine, being lactose intolerant can cause uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms, like flatulence, bloating, abdominal distension, and diarrhea. By switching to a non-dairy milk alternative, you can still flavor your oatmeal and coffee without bringing on these undesirable symptoms.
Some people choose a non-dairy milk alternative because they’re concerned about the health effects of drinking milk long-term. Dairy milk is a good source of calcium but recent studies suggest that people who drink dairy milk do NOT have a lower risk of bone fractures. Also, some studies show that people who drink 3 or more glasses of milk daily may increase their risk of prostate and ovarian cancer. Due to concerns like these, Harvard School of Public Health urges caution with regard to dairy milk. Although there’s not enough evidence that dairy milk causes ovarian and prostate cancer or that it’s harmful to health, it’s not a bad idea to consume it in moderation and alternate it with a milk substitute.
Another reason non-dairy milk is growing in popularity is that food allergies are on the rise and a number of people have milk allergies. Rice milk is ideal, in this case, since it’s not allergenic. However, you have to weigh that against concerns about arsenic.
One downside to alternative milk is it often contains additives, including emulsifiers. Some studies suggest that emulsifiers may harm your gut and may worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome as well. For example, some emulsifiers increase intestinal inflammation in mice. Carrageenan, previously discussed, is one type of emulsifier linked with inflammation, but it’s possible that the emulsifiers in carrageenan-free milk are also not tummy friendly.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re lactose intolerance, eat a vegan diet, or are concerned about possible health risks of drinking too much milk, you have a growing array of milk substitutes to choose from. As you can see, they’re not all the same. Read the labels carefully and use these guidelines to choose one that will best meet your needs.
WebMD. “The Pros and Cons of Milk and Dairy”
Live Science. “Why Processed Foods May Promote Gut Inflammation”
Int J Environ Health Res. 2014;24(5):459-70. doi: 10.1080/09603123.2013.857393. Epub 2013 Nov 18.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Questions & Answers: Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products”
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