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Milk Alternatives: Which One’s Right for You?

Oh, the world of alternatives to cow’s milk!

Alternative milk products take up almost an entire aisle of larger supermarkets these days and are covered with all kinds of confusing labels: “dairy free,” “carrageenan free,” “lactose free,” “soy free,” “organic,” etc. What are these milks really made out of and which is the healthiest?

Below is a review of the most common “milks” and what you need to know when selecting which is best for you.

Soy Milk

Arguably, the first dairy milk (from cows or goats) alternative introduced in the USA in 1979 by a company called Vitasoy.  

Soy milk is made by soaking whole soybeans for a number of hours and then they are ground. The mixture is then boiled and strained. Preservatives are then added and in some cases sweetener.

Is soy good for you? There’s a lot of mixed research about the health benefits of soy. In Japan, soy has been a large part of their diet for many years and the traditional Japanese cultures are very healthy. The difference is that the soy they were consuming–and some still are–is the good kind that’s organic and not genetically modified and most of the time is fermented.

Unfortunately, today most of the soybeans grown are GMO, non organic, and unsustainable. Additionally, soy contains phytoestrogens, which act like estrogen in the body, so eating them is like consuming extra estrogen. For both men and women, consuming additional estrogen can be risky due to the carcinogenic effect of “estrogen dominance.”  Of all of the milk alternatives, this is probably the least healthy. If you love soy milk and it seems to work for you, it’s best to stick to Non-GMO, organic, and unsweetened varieties OR make it at home from organic/non-GMO soybeans.

Remember also that soy is considered a legume so it’s not approved on the paleo diet. Some people who consume large quantities of soy report feeling foggy brained and experiencing inflammation.

Pros:  Lactose free, inexpensive

Cons: Hormone interaction from phytoestrogens due to GMO soy. Carb heavy.

Nut Milks (almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia and pecan)

If you don’t already have a high level of nut consumption in your life, unsweetened nut milk can be a good alternative to cow’s milk. It often has a creamy texture and is naturally low in carbohydrates and sugar while tasting like the nut it comes from.  

Nut milk is made by soaking the nuts for several hours in water, then pureeing them at a high speed. The nut mixture is then strained and preservatives are added to extend the shelf life.

Why should you be careful about consuming too many nuts? Very High in Omega-6 fatty acids, which are beneficial, it’s important to have the right ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids. If you already consume a lot of nuts–remember peanuts are legumes,  not nuts. Adding nut milk to your life, as well, could cause inflammation resulting in weight gain or other unwanted symptoms. If you love nut milks, try to keep your consumption of nuts to a minimum. Remember, nut milk is also easy to make at home and this is really the healthiest alternative!

Pros: Low carbohydrate, paleo friendly, and tasty. Lactose free. Many juice bars make their own fresh versions!

Cons: High in Omega-6 fatty acids. Not suitable for those with nut allergies or avoiding nuts.

Coconut Milk

My personal favorite, coconut milk, in general has gotten a bad rap over the years for its high levels of saturated fat (which, by the way, are quite good for you). Currently, eating coconut is back in fashion and so is its milk. Traditionally, coconut milk is acquired through the grating of the white inner flesh of a brown coconut, and mixing the resulting substance with a small amount of water to suspend the fat present in the grated meat. Most of the unsweetened coconut milk out there is low in sugar and has a lovely flavor, if you like coconut!.

Pros: Coconut milk contains vitamins C, E, B1, 3, 5 & 6 and iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. Lactose free.  

Cons:  It tastes like coconut, which some people don’t like.  

Goat’s Milk

Still considered dairy, goat and sheep milks have been touted for years due to the fact that countries all over the world live off them. If you can tolerate the somewhat stronger taste, there are many nutritionists (and cultures) that see a positive difference in the way they feel overall when consuming goat or sheep milk instead of cow’s milk.

Pros: It absorbs nutrients and minerals better than cow’s milk. It is less allergenic, easier to digest and causes less inflammation than cow dairy. High in vitamin A. High in calcium and fatty acids. Goat’s milk has less lactose than cow’s milk.

Cons: Strong flavor and it is still dairy, which some people can’t tolerate. Plus sustainable organic can be expensive. It is not lactose free.

Rice Milk

Rice milk has been a milk substitute for a long time and is a superior source of B vitamins, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, and manganese. In addition, this drink is packed with carbohydrates, making it an excellent energizing beverage. Rice milk is FODMAP diet-friendly, so individuals with irritable bowel syndrome may be able to drink this beverage. Commercial rice milk is made from pressing soaked rice through a mill. You can also easily make it at home.

Pros:  Rice milk contains B vitamins and minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, and manganese. Rice milk is FODMAP friendly.  

Cons:  It is a carbohydrate packed beverage, so keep this in mind. It is also often sweetened and is not paleo (or grain free). Low in calcium and protein. It can be used as an alternative in recipes.

Hemp Milk

For those avoiding nuts, hemp milk can be a good option because it is made from hulled hemp seeds that have been soaked in water. The mixture is blended and then strained to create the “milk.” It has a creamy texture and a mild flavor. It’s easy to make at home.

Pros: Balanced in protein, fat and carbs. Provides both Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Low calorie. Paleo friendly, vegan, lactose free. It contains 10 essential amino acids which can be great for vegans, and, for many, it can be more digestible than soy milk.

Cons: Low in calcium unless fortified

A few basic facts apply to all of these milks: Watch out for sweetened or “original” versions of the plant-based milks. Check to see if sugar is an ingredient in the product; if so, leave it on the shelf. Also check for the thickening agent carrageenan, which has been deemed to cause various health problems. There are many varieties that now omit this ingredient. If you have a high-quality strong blender at home, try making your own milks.  

If you think cow’s milk is causing you issues with your intestines, skin, or anything else, please give some of the above options a try and don’t stop until you find one that works best.

Today, there are so many unsweetened options to all of these products that I am sure you will find one you like!