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Whether you are allergic to milk, lactose intolerant, vegan, or simply in search of a nondairy option, you’re in luck. Alternatives to cow’s milk have never been more numerous, or more popular. Last year, U.S. retail sales of plant-based nondairy beverages, such as soy, almond, rice, coconut and hemp milk, reached a whopping $1.3 billion, and in less than five years, annual sales are expected to top $1.7 billion.

The growing popularity of milk alternatives comes directly at the expense of cow’s milk consumption, which declined to a decade low of 20.6 gallons per person in 2009. Americans are opting for milk alternatives because of their perceived nutritional benefits, but those benefits come with some caveats, says Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RD, an integrative nutritionist and coauthor of The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health.

Many nondairy drinks are fortified to resemble conventional milk’s nutritional profile, but Swift notes that the bioavailability of these nutrients, such as calcium, is highly dependent on many factors, including an individual’s digestive function and integrity. And many of these beverages contain added sugars and oils as well as additives such as guar gum and carrageenan.

Swift also points out that milk alternatives are not replacements for whole foods. “I prefer that the mainstay of one’s diet be true whole foods with only 10 to 20 percent made up of more processed items, such as nondairy alternatives,” she says. “After all, almond milk is not a whole food like actual almonds, nor is rice milk a whole food like brown rice.”

Still, each of these beverages offers some benefits, ranging from high levels of protein and essential vitamins to healthy fats and antioxidants. And for millions of people whose digestive systems can’t tolerate cow’s milk, they can be a lifesaver. Read on to learn which of these milk alternatives might be right for you.

1. Soy Milk

The most popular plant-based milk, soy milk is produced by soaking, crushing and cooking soybeans, then extracting the liquid.

The Upside: Compared with other nondairy alternatives, soy milk has a fair bit of protein, which can make it more satiating, says Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, a New York City–based dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders and food intolerances. Unlike most other vegetable proteins, soy protein is considered “complete” because it contains all the essential amino acids, Freuman notes. Soy milk also trumps its counterparts when it comes to potassium, an electrolyte vital for heart functioning and proper muscle contraction.

Sour Notes: Many experts are concerned that Americans’ overconsumption of highly processed soy products, including soy milk and soy proteins, can lead to a slew of health problems. Soy allergies and intolerances are relatively common, and research suggests they can cause a wide range of problems, from stomach pain and gas to immunity problems, cognitive decline and infertility. Some scientists also worry that high levels of processed soy isoflavones can affect hormones, raising the risk for breast cancer and depressing thyroid function. “Some people can biotransform isoflavones into beneficial compounds, while others may not have that ability,” says Swift. “To play it safe,” she advises, “it’s best to cap soy food intake at two servings per day, such as 8 ounces of soy milk and 1 cup of edamame.” (If you’re a fan of soy, look for fermented sources, such as tempeh and miso, which are rich in beneficial, immune-boosting bacteria. And choose organic options whenever possible.)

Taste Test: Soy milk’s slightly beany taste and chalky texture may take some getting used to. As a general rule, soy beverages have a thicker, richer and creamier texture than grain-, nut-or seed-based beverages.

2. Almond Milk

This nut milk is made from skinned or blanched almonds that are finely ground and blended with water, then filtered to remove solids. A close second to soy in terms of overall consumption, almond milk posted the largest increase in retail sales of all the milk alternatives in 2011, rising by 79 percent.

The Upside: It’s high in vitamin E, including what is naturally present in almonds as well as what is added by manufacturers. “This antioxidant helps protect cell walls against free-radical damage,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a vegan dietitian based in Santa Rosa, Calif. A recent European study found that higher blood levels of vitamin E can also protect against cognitive decline. Nussinow says almond milk is the richest in monounsaturated fat of all the milk alternatives. It is generally lower in calories than the other alternatives, but Nussinow advises against considering calories as a key selection factor. (For more on why, see “Who’s Counting?”)

Sour Notes: You don’t get almonds’ full array of vitamins and minerals, including folate and immune-boosting zinc.

Taste Test: Almond milk is slightly nutty and toasty with a hint of sweetness and has a great, milk-like texture.

(Learn how to make your own at: Almond Milk.)

3. Coconut Milk

Not to be confused with the canned, thick coconut milk used in sauces, this drinkable product is made by blending water and coconut milk squeezed from grated coconut flesh.

The Upside: It’s high in healthy saturated fat, especially lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that has strong antibacterial properties. “Some research suggests that we are more likely to metabolize medium-chain fats for energy instead of storing them as body fat, as long as overall calorie intake is not excessive,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, coauthor of The SuperFoods Rx Diet.

Sour Notes: Coconut meat is a good source of dietary fiber, but the milk it produces is not. Similar to almond and rice milk, it is a poor source of protein.

Taste Test: It has a smooth texture, natural sweetness and a mild, coconut-y flavor. (Makes an especially flavorful replacement for cream in coffee.)

(For more on coconuts, visit “The Health Benefits of Eating Coconuts“.)

4. Hemp Milk

Made by blending hemp seeds with water and then filtering the mixture to remove the solids. The food-grade seeds come from a different cannabis variety than that used to produce marijuana, so it does not contain any psychoactive ingredients.

The Upside: Like rice milk, hemp milk is free of common allergens, and it trumps its nondairy rivals when it comes to essential fatty acids, including the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It also provides dietary iron and is a good natural source of magnesium, an important mineral in which many Americans are deficient.

Sour Notes: Hemp seeds are a good source of plant-based protein, but hemp milk is not. Also, hemp milk is generally more expensive than most other alternatives.

Taste Test: Hemp milk is rich and creamy, but the earthy flavor can take some getting used to.

5. Rice Milk

Made by blending together cooked rice (usually brown), water, rice syrup and rice starch. Most commercial versions also contain thickening agents, sugar and flavorings.

The Upside: Rice is considered hypoallergenic, making it a safe option for those who have sensitivities to not just dairy, but also nuts or soy.

Sour Notes: Because rice is high in starch, rice milk has a high glycemic index that can destabilize blood-sugar levels. Many brands also contain highly processed vegetable oils.

Taste Test: Rice milk has a light, sweet flavor that tastes a lot like conventional milk, but with a slightly watery consistency.

6. Goat’s Milk

Not a nondairy alternative, but goat’s milk may be tolerated well by folks for whom cow’s milk poses problems. It is the beverage of choice for millions of people around the world.

The Upside: Goat’s milk offers good nutrition and easy digestion, and it qualifies as a whole food. Compared with cow’s milk, goat’s milk provides higher levels of omega-3 fats; the bone-building trio of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium; and conjugated linoleic acid. It also offers more than twice as much potassium and about 27 percent more selenium. Goat’s milk contains higher levels of solids than cow’s milk, so it is more nutrient dense. And because the proteins and the fat composition in goat’s milk are different from cow’s milk, many people who cannot tolerate conventional milk can drink goat’s milk.

Sour Notes: Since the demand for goat’s milk in the United States is low, the drink remains pricey.

Taste Test: The noticeably tangier taste of goat’s milk can be off-putting to some, but many devotees embrace its strong flavor.

7. Raw Milk

It’s cow’s milk, but because it undergoes no pasteurization, irradiation or homogenization, proponents say raw milk bears little nutritional resemblance to the conventional stuff.

The Upside: Passionate proponents — and there are many — point to research that shows that raw milk provides more enzymes that support the growth of healthy bacteria, which helps our bodies break down and digest the natural sugars, calcium and proteins in milk. “Also, we now have several European studies showing that raw milk provides powerful protection against asthma, allergies and skin problems,” says Sally Fallon Morell, president of the nonprofit Weston A. Price Foundation.

Sour Notes: Not everyone is convinced that drinking raw milk is safe. Raw milk accounted for only about 1 percent of all milk produced in the United States between 1993 and 2006, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. But, say raw milk opponents, it was responsible for 60 percent of the dairy-related disease outbreaks. An increasing number of states are restricting sales. The raucous raw-milk debate is sure to continue for some time.

Taste Test: Raw-milk drinkers praise it for having a richer, fresher taste compared with its heat-treated counterpart.

Not Milk?

A few things to consider when shopping for nondairy milk alternatives:

Protein: With the exception of soy milk (which, as discussed, has its own set of potential health downsides), all of the plant-based milk alternatives covered here have a negligible amount of protein.

Sugar: To mask “odd” flavors, some milk alternatives include high levels of added sugars, which can lead to blood-sugar issues and inflammation, says nutritionist Tamara Duker Freuman, RD. To keep sugar intake in check, she recommends letting your palate become accustomed to the unsweetened versions. Those with picky palates might start by mixing the plain and vanilla-flavored varieties.

Added nutrients: Many nondairy beverages are fortified with nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and vitamin B12, so that they better mimic dairy milk’s nutritional profile. But there has been little reputable research on the bioavailability of these added nutrients, says Robert P. Heaney, MD, professor of medicine at Creighton University. Research has shown that the added calcium tends to settle on the bottom of the carton “so you’re likely not consuming the full amount stated on the nutrition label,” Heaney says. He suggests giving the package a vigorous shake to help suspend the calcium in the liquid. And he notes that the vitamin D2 added to dairy alternatives is about only half as potent as the vitamin D3 with which conventional cow’s milk is fortified.

Additives: Some dairy alternatives contain additives like guar gum and carrageenan, thickening agents that are used to impart a creamy, milk-like consistency. While these ingredients are not well studied, they “can be problematic for some with digestive issues,” says nutritionist Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RD. “It is really a matter of trial and response to see how they are tolerated.” The versions kept in the refrigerator section of your grocery store will generally have fewer additives than those that are shelf-stable.

What’s in Your Rice Milk?

Although they sound wholesome and healthy, many plant-based milk alternatives have lengthy ingredients list. For example, rice milk contains much more than simply water and rice. Here’s the lowdown on the ingredients hiding in a typical carton of organic rice milk.

Organic brown rice syrup: Made by exposing brown rice to enzymes that break down the natural starch content of rice into a sugary syrup. “These types of sweeteners are basically a euphemism for sugar and not much better nutritionally,” says dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman, RD.

Organic expeller-pressed safflower and/or sunflower seed oil: Many brands add a small amount of vegetable oil to give the product more “body.” Although expeller-pressed oil is extracted without the use of dangerous chemicals like hexane, these vegetable oils still are high in inflammatory omega-6 fats.

Tricalcium phosphate: The calcium used to fortify the product and, hence, says Robert Heany, MD, it’s not as bioavailable to the body.

Sea salt and organic vanilla extract: Natural flavor enhancers.

Carrageenan: A natural polysaccharide (carbohydrate) extracted from red seaweed. Similar to guar or xanthum gum, it’s used as a thickening agent to help give the product a consistency more similar to cow milk. It also acts as an emulsifier, meaning it keeps contents from separating. Not very well studied.

Natural flavor: Used to make processed rice milk more palatable. The technical difference between a “natural flavor” and an “artificial flavor” is that the former has to be derived from a real food at some point. Still, it’s likely to have been manufactured in a laboratory.

Vitamin A palmitate: Added to provide a source of vitamin A naturally found in animal foods such as whole milk.

Ergocalciferol (vitamin D2): A vegetarian-sourced form of vitamin D, and, according to Heaney, not as potent as the vitamin D3 added to most cow milk.

Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12): Almost exclusively found in animal-based foods, vitamin B12 is pumped into an increasing number of nondairy alternatives.

This article originally appeared as “The New Moo” in the September 2012 issue of Experience Life.

Photography by: Andrea D’Agosto

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