Milk is officially defined as the liquid produced by female mammals as food for their infant young. We humans love to consume the milk of other mammals; and not just cows, but also goat, sheep, camel, buffalo, yak, you name it.
But there are other reasons that people avoid dairy: allergies, inflammation, veganism, animal rights and environmental concerns sway people to seek milk-alternatives. In fact, the FDA identifies milk as the most allergic food in America!
Nutritionally, milk is a 1-ingredient wonder. A cup provides 8 grams of protein, and it is naturally rich in calcium, vitamins B-12, A, C, D, K, E and a host of additional B vitamins. No emulsifiers, thickeners or gums are necessary to stabilize it.
Dairy cows have long been routinely given rBGH (genetically engineered, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), for increased milk production, as well as antibiotics to keep them infection-free. Though 40% of U.S. milk now claims to be free of hormones and antibiotics, that doesn't account for other dairy products so you need to be on label patrol. Your safest bet is to buy organic milk. Better yet, try milk from grass-fed cows, now widely available in supermarkets. Grass is a natural diet for a cow, and will also provide more omega-3's in your milk.
Is Raw Milk the Real Deal?
Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to kill off pathogens, and thus is akin to cooking it. Another process, called Ultra-Pasteurization (or UHT) heats milk at even higher temperatures to sterilize milk and extend shelf life. Be aware that many organic brands ultra-pasteurize their milk. Raw milk advocates claim this diminishes the nutrient content, including friendly bacteria, by 66%.
Those who drink raw milk swear by its benefits, though the FDA continues to warn of its dangers. Laws vary widely by state. Decide for yourself, but always be meticulous about clean containers and refrigeration. (You can read more about raw milk here.)
Almond Milk is the current market superstar, with annual sales at almost $600 million, 2/3 of the U.S. plant-milk market! And though almonds are a powerhouse food source, you are not getting them to full advantage in a glass of almond milk. Indeed, a cup provides the equivalent of a mere 4 nuts. The remainder is water and additives. Almond milk is produced by grinding almonds with water, then straining out the pulp.
(The amount of almonds you see on the doily are the amount of almonds in that entire pitcher...maybe.)
Almonds are a water-intensive crop, which has severe environmental implications, especially in drought-stricken California, where all domestic almonds are grown. Each nut requires a gallon of water to produce. Nutritionally, almond milk is low in protein - 1 gram - with no vitamin B-12, a significant consideration for those who follow a plant-based diet. Want the benefits of almonds? Eat 'em whole.
Additional nutrition facts: Almond milk generally contains cane sugar, salt, gums and lecithin. It may also be supplemented with calcium and vitamins.
A staple of traditional Asian cuisine for thousands of years, soy milk is made by soaking dried soybeans and grinding them in water, then heating. For a long time soy milk was the standard milk-alternative. There are a number of theories on why things changed, the simplest being that almond milk was just the next big thing. However, there were a series of reports that likely turned consumers away from soy milk, and soy in general.
Soy contains phytoestrogens (plant-based estrogens) that can mimic the action of estrogen in the body. Because of the link between estrogen and breast cancer, there was a fear that soy foods could also increase risk. After years of conflicting information, many were confused about the unfounded association between soy and this risk. However the latest research actually supports the safety of soy food and its protective effects. Another fear was related to a study regarding soy and male fertility. It was concluded that there was no association between soy and this issue either. (I recommend that people with thyroid health concerns consult with their physician regarding soy consumption.)
Nutritionally, soy beats out almond milk hands down. One cup provides 8 grams of protein, 50% of the RDA for vitamin B-12 and 45% for calcium. Since 95% of the U.S. soy crop is genetically engineered, always buy organic soy milk!
Coconut Milk is made from the grated meat of a mature brown coconut, and should not be confused with coconut water, which is the fluid from a young green coconut.
Coconut milk consumption has risen over 15% in the past 2 years. The craze is largely due to hype over coconuts' inherent lauric acid content, a saturated fat that raises HDL ("good") cholesterol. However, whether or not lauric acid has a beneficial effect on coronary heart health still remains uncertain. Coconut milk is available in a container (good) or a can, which you need to be sure is BPA-free.
Nutritionally, one cup of coconut milk contains zero grams of protein, and is also the highest of all the milk alternatives in added sodium, oils and fat, too. In fact, the fat content in coconut milk ranges from 5-22%. It can be fortified with lots of nutrients, but also has a lot of additives so be sure to read the ingredient list.
Concerns About Milk-Alternatives
Almost all milk-alternatives contains lecithins, emulsifiers and gums. Some (not all) contain carrageenan, a thickening agent derived from red seaweed, which is found in many organic and "natural" products. Since many people react negatively to this ingredient, it is being phased out. Be aware that flavored milks can have sugar contents up to 20 grams or more a serving. Even the "original" formulation of a milk-alternative often has a good amount of sugar. Try to acclimate yourself to the unsweetened variety before you get hooked.
The next big thing? Cashew milk sales are on the rise as it is closest in texture and taste to dairy milk. (You heard it here first!)
But it offers less than 1 gram of protein per serving.