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Your Guide to Non-Dairy Milks

If you’re one of the 65% of adults who are lactose intolerant, you may often find yourself drinking non-dairy milk. And with dozens of options, it can be hard to know which milk alternate to choose.


In this blog, we’ll break down the pros and cons of the most popular non-dairy milk options and tell you what to look for when buying your next carton.

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Non-dairy milk 101:


We’ve all been told countless times to drink our milk. And for good reason! Dairy milk is full of protein, calcium, and many other vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, dairy milk also contains a sugar called lactose. And, if you’re lactose intolerant and lack proper amounts of lactase, the enzyme that helps break down lactose, consuming dairy milk can seem to be more trouble than it’s worth.


Consuming milk when you’re lactose intolerant often comes with cramping, diarrhea, and bloating. Today, 65% of Americans are lactose intolerant, with certain groups, like Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans having a near 80% chance of having the condition.


But that’s where non-dairy milk alternatives come in. As the name suggests, alternative milks offer a solution to cow’s milk. However, it can be hard to find non-dairy milk with even half of the nutrient content as dairy milk. This is why many non-dairy milks are fortified during the production process. When milk is fortified, it’s pumped full of vitamins and minerals like vitamins D and A, calcium, and B vitamins. However, even after fortification, no non-dairy milk can still meet the nutritional content of cow’s milk.


Choosing your non-dairy milk:


It can be overwhelming to shop for non-dairy milks, with many stores carrying a dozen different kinds. From soy to almond to hemp- how on earth are you supposed to know which one you should buy? We’ll break down the pros and cons of the most popular non-dairy milks below:


Almond:

  • Pros: There’s a reason almond milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives, it’s decently low calorie and tastes good. One serving of unsweetened almond milk typically has around 40 calories, whereas dairy milk contains over 100 calories. Almond milk is also low in sugar and high in antioxidants.

  • Cons: However, almond milk doesn’t actually contain as many nutrients as most people think. In one cup of almond milk, there are only around 4 almonds. Almond milk only has around 1 gram of protein per serving, whereas whole milk contains 7-8 grams. Almond milk is also not very environmentally conscious, as, pesticides used on the crops are killing bees and it requires a lot of water.

Oat:

  • Pros: Oat milk contains much more protein and fiber than almond milk. Oat milk is also sustainable, requiring much less water than dairy and almond milks. There is more riboflavin and B12 in oat milk, which is especially important if you follow a plant-based diet. Finally, oat milk is closer to the consistency of cow’s milk, which is a bonus if you’re missing the texture of regular milk.

  • Cons: Some oat milk manufacturing plants also process crops that contain gluten. That means that oat milk is often exposed to gluten in the manufacturing process. Oat milk is also higher in carbohydrates and calories.

Soy:

  • Pros: Soy milk is the most nutritionally similar to low-fat cow’s milk. It contains all 9 essential amino acids. Several studies have also found that consuming 25 g of soy protein daily can help to decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol. Soy milk also contains no cholesterol and very little saturated fats.

  • Cons: Soy milk is not the tastiest milk alternative. It does have a slightly bean-flavored taste. Moreover, consuming too much soy can potentially have negative effects on your thyroid, which can lead to a lowered metabolism. Many of the crops used to create soy milk are also genetically modified (GMO), meaning it can further antibiotic resistance.

Coconut:

  • Pros: Coconut milk is high in magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, all of which helps to build strong bones. Coconut milk is also high in fiber. Several studies have also found that drinking coconut milk can improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The environmental impact of coconut milk is also relatively small, as production plants in Asia work to use the entire coconut.

  • Cons: Unfortunately, coconut milk is extremely high in calories- one cup contains over 550 calories! Coconut milk also contains the highest fat content of all the non-dairy milks (this explains the high calories). Some coconut milks also contain guar gum, which can cause digestive problems for some people.

Rice:

  • Pros: Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of all alternative milk products. It also contains the least amount of fat and no cholesterol. Rice milk is also a good source of all the B vitamins and contains nutrients known to promote cardiovascular health- like niacin and vitamin B6. Further, rice milk contains the highest amount of antioxidants of all the non-dairy milks.

  • Cons: Rice milk is full of starch, which makes it very high in carbohydrates. This means that if you’re diabetic, you should probably avoid it. Rice milk is also low in protein, with only 2 grams per serving. Further, rice milk is low in calcium.

Cashew:

  • Pros: Cashew milk is low in carbohydrates, fat, and calories! Cashew milk is also loaded with nutrients like magnesium, iron, and potassium. Several studies have linked cashew milk to a lower risk of heart disease. Further, cashew milk is the creamiest of all the nut milks, with a thick and rich texture.

  • Cons: Cashew milk is low in protein. Moreover, cashew milk is not the tastiest drink, and many varieties are heavily sweetened to improve the flavor. This also means that many cashew milks are high in calories.

What to look for when you’re buying non-dairy milk alternatives:


Often, throughout the production process, non-dairy milk is loaded with additives and sugars in an effort to emulate the taste of dairy milk. This makes it especially important to carefully read the ingredients lists when you’re shopping for milk alternatives. Here are the top 5 things to watch out for:

  • Evaporated cane juice, cane syrup, or cane sugar → When you see cane, think sugar. Despite being less processed than regular sugar, cane products are no healthier than regular sugar. Cane is 99% sucrose and has no nutritional value. Most milk has more sugar in just one serving than an entire piece of fruit. If you can’t stand the taste of unsweetened milk alternatives, add your own healthy sweeteners, like liquid stevia, raw coconut nectar, or even organic maple syrup. These options are less refined, lower glycemic, and actually contain some nutritional value.

  • MSG → You won’t find MSG on any non-dairy milk labels, but clues are often hidden on the nutritional label. “Natural flavors” and “natural colors” are codes for MSG. To safely avoid MSG, stick to milks that have an “MSG-free” label on the bottle. Further, store-brand alternative milks are much more likely to contain MSG than other, more well-known brands.

  • Vitamin D2 and other isolated vitamins → Vitamin D2 is a synthetic and isolated form of Vitamin D, which causes it to be poorly absorbed by the body. Several studies have suggested that consuming the vitamin may actually cause more harm than good. Moreover, when isolated vitamins are added to non-dairy milks, they often lack the natural co-factors required for proper absorption.

  • Genetically modified oils → Many non-dairy milks contain some form of oil, to help with the consistency. The most commonly used oils are canola, sunflower, and safflower. While they have few associated health risks, these oils are almost always genetically modified and can cause inflammation. To avoid these oils, stick to bottles with a non-GMO label.

  • Emulsifiers (Xanthan and Guar Gum) → Both of these ingredients work to help non-dairy milk emulate the texture of regular cow’s milk. Xanthan gum is a thickening agent that has been linked to digestive problems and colitis. Guar gum is extremely hard to digest. Many brands, like Silk, are ditching the emulsifiers, but many still contain them.


Our Recommendation:


Our favorite place to get our non-dairy milks is from JOI. Store-bought alternative milks are 98% water. JOI takes out the middle man and has created concentrates made from 100% plants, you just have to add the water! JOI offers oat, almond, cashew, and hazelnut milks! All of their products use whole ingredients without additives, are very sustainable and environmentally friendly, and organic! JOI milk concentrates also don't need to be refrigerated, meaning they have a much longer shelf life!


Click here to check out JOI's products!



For more information about reaching optimal health with the Johnson Center, click here to contact us. Or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary discovery call.


The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!

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