For those with a dairy allergy or who suffer from lactose intolerance, the growing dairy alternative section is a welcome sight. A category once dominated by soy and rice milk, now features flaxseed, oat, cashew, coconut, hazelnut, almond, pea, hemp, and likely more to come. You may be thinking that you didn’t know you can get milk from nuts and seeds, and indeed you can’t, which is why these products are technically non-dairy beverages (and why the dairy industry wants to maintain a narrow definition of “milk”).
What should we consider when choosing a non-dairy beverage? As with any packaged product, it’s essential to start with the nutrition facts panel and decide what’s best for you.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Only soymilk offers the same amount of protein as cow’s milk (8 grams/8-ounce serving). With the exception of hemp milk, other non-dairy alternatives offer about 1-gram protein/serving.
While only cow’s milk has naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, all non-dairy beverages are fortified to be excellent sources of calcium, B12, and vitamin D.
Unsweetened, non-dairy beverages are lower in carbohydrate than cow’s milk (except for rice milk).
How much sugar is in your non-dairy beverage? Read the nutrition facts panel carefully to ensure your drink of choice is low in added sugar, especially if it’s being served to children. Sugar-containing beverages are a significant source of added sugar and calories in children’s diets.
There are also some other considerations:
For toddlers (12-24 months), whole cow’s milk is recommended. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers this advice for toddlers with a dairy allergy or intolerance.
Like coconut oil, coconut milk contains a significant amount of saturated fat. A recent meta-analysis found that a diet rich in coconut oil was aligned with higher levels of LDL cholesterol, a type of cholesterol we seek to keep low to reduce our risk of heart disease.
The additive carrageenan is used in some food products and historically has been found in many vegan products, including non-dairy milk alternatives. Some individuals find carrageenan difficult to digest and despite being FDA approved, controversy remains over its safety. There are several non-dairy alternatives that are free from carrageenan if you prefer to avoid it
The production of non-dairy milk alternatives has an impact on our environment. While the greenhouse emissions are less than with dairy milk, it’s important to know that almond milk, for example, requires a significant amount of water to produce and may have other environmental impacts.
Non-dairy beverages made from flax or hemp are significantly higher in omega fats that cow’s milk. For example, an 8-ounce serving of flaxseed milk offers 1,200mg of omega-3 fats. Our omega fatty acids are essential fats that we need and many of us don’t consume enough of. Choosing a non-dairy beverage rich in omega fats can help us meet this goal.
The Bottom Line
If you choose to consume a non-dairy milk alternative in place of cow’s milk or in addition to it, it’s important to carefully read the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list to ensure that the beverage you’re choosing is vitamin and mineral rich, low in sugar, and providing the nutrition you’re seeking.