Milk from mammals such as cows and goats has long been associated with strong teeth and bones. Increasingly, there is an awareness of the potential adverse effects of drinking milk, including lactose intolerance and allergies. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, allergy to dairy is the most common food allergy in infants and children.
Lactose intolerance is different than having an allergy. A food allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a specific food protein, with symptoms varying from mild to life-threatening. Lactose intolerance results from the body’s inability to digest the sugar (lactose). People who are lactose intolerant are missing the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose. As a result, lactose-intolerant individuals are unable to digest dairy products, and may experience symptoms such as nausea, cramps, gas, bloating and diarrhea. Although lactose-intolerance can cause discomfort, it isn’t life-threatening while a severe milk allergy can be.
Fortunately, there are many healthy alternatives. While not nutritionally equivalent to dairy, especially in terms of protein, phosphorus and calcium, many of alternatives are fortified with additional nutrients. These products run the gamut and are made from nuts, seeds, grains and coconut. Some work well for cooking or in baked goods, and some are better for drinking or adding to smoothies or poured on cereals.
One of the first alternatives, soy milk is often fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D and riboflavin, and has five to eight grams of protein per cup, making it comparable to the protein in dairy milk. It is available sweetened, unsweetened, or with vanilla or chocolate added. However, some people have difficulty digesting soy products, especially when they are highly processed or unfermented.
Made from ground almonds and water (and sometimes added sweeteners), almond milk is lower in calories and fat than cow’s milk and can be a good source of calcium. It contains a good dose of vitamin E and many varieties of almond milk are fortified with vitamins and minerals. It may also be used as a substitute for milk in certain baked goods. Other nut milks include hazelnut and cashew.
Hemp seed milk
Hemp seeds are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats which are good for the heart and brain. They are also a good source of protein, calcium, vitamins B and D, magnesium and phosphorus.
Different than the higher fat version available in cans and mainly used in cooking, coconut milk beverages contain extra water and have less fat and fewer calories than the canned version.
Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of any of the milk alternatives and some brands are fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and iron. Rice milk is high in carbohydrates and very low in protein. Some rice products may contain detectable levels of arsenic. ConsumerReports.org® recommends drinking no more than a half cup per day and not giving rice milk regularly to children under the age of five.
Read and compare labels
As with anything you purchase, read the ingredient label. Some alternative milks contain thickeners such as guar gum (made from the guar or cluster bean) or carrageenan (extracted from red algae). Some people may experience gastrointestinal discomfort from these additives while others do not. Also, some products are fortified and some have sweeteners added. Sweeteners can push the calories in an eight-ounce glass to 160 while an unsweetened milk alternative may have as few as 35 calories per cup.
Make your own nut milk
There are multiple sites online detailing how to make milk from nuts or seeds. The only special equipment you may need is a heavy duty blender and a nut milk bag through which to strain your blended milk.
Not a substitute for infant formula
Alternative milks are not suitable replacements for breast milk or formula. Consult your physician about which products to use for infants.