A Registered Dietitian Takes a Close Look at What’s in your Glass

Hemp, Oats, Soy, Almonds, Coconut?

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Got Milk-Substitute?

That ad campaign hasn’t really caught on.

The Healthy Eating Plate, created by Harvard’s School of Public Health, is a response to the USDA’s MyPlate. The big difference in the Harvard diet is that there is a conspicuous absence of dairy products. The cow has lost its protagonism.



Hemp, oat, almond, coconut, soy, rice, not to mention lactose-free, organic … the list goes on and on of milk substitutes or milk products that are available on the market today. Over the years, more people have been opting for milk substitutes. Add this trend to Harvard’s recommendation of limiting dairy intake to one or two glasses of milk a day, milk substitutes are on the rise. Everything from almond milk to soy milk are tipping over the cow.

But before you grab the substitute, keep in mind the reasons we drink milk, beyond calcium, is for its protein and nutrients added to the fact it’s a low-sugar and low-fat beverage. All of these perks can be found in milk substitutes, but before buying, you have to read the labels.

Moreover, not every milk substitute offers everything a cup of cow’s milk does, so you’ll have to adjust your meals to compensate for what might be missing.

Nutrients:

Cow’s milk has calcium, Vitamin B-12, potassium, and Vitamin D(when fortified).

  • Soy milk comes the closest to cow milk to matching potassium levels. As you might recall, increasing natural sources of potassium in our diets is critical for heart health and bone health.
  • Fortified milk substitutes often have all of the vitamins and nutrients we need to match cow’s milk, but you have to read the label to make sure the milk substitute you’re buying does.
  • Calcium doesn’t only come in dairy products. We get some of our best calcium in leafy greens, beans and tofu. So, as with anything, too much of a good thing is too much. In fact, a diet too high in calcium can cause kidney stones and weaken bones. (Jayne Hurley, How Do Non-Dairy Milks Match Up With Cow’s Milk, September 17, 2015, www.nutritionaction.com).

Protein:

  • Only soy milk offers almost the same protein punch as cow’s milk. Some children develop an allergy to the proteins in cow milk and, early on, need to switch. But the key is receiving proteins in our diets. So if you’re used to eating just a bowl of cereal and fruit for breakfast, and you don’t do it with cow milk or soy milk, you’ll need to find another protein source. (eggs, tofu, quinoa, chia porridge).

Low fat:

  • Fats have gotten a bad rap over the years and now sugar’s in the hot seat. (See below). That said, there’s little good in drinking something that’s super-charged with saturated fats that offers no protein. Coconut milk has about five times the fat of a regular glass of milk, and all of it saturated. So leave the coconut milk for curry and cooking and stick to almond or another nutty flavor for drinking.

Low Sugar:

  • Cow’s milk produces a naturally occurring sugar called lactose. Lactose is something many people have trouble digesting. Lactose makes up approximately 40% of cow milk’s calories. Regular whole milk has approximately 12 – 13 grams of total sugar (3 teaspoons) per 8 oz serving. This is what gives milk it’s sweet flavor. Many milk substitutes, though, have added sugars. (Soy milks are guilty of adding up to 12 grams of sugar per 8 oz glass). Read the label and opt for unsweetened milk substitute options. If that’s too bitter for your taste, buy original milk substitute drinks that have naturally occurring sugars, but try not to exceed five grams of added sugars (1 teaspoon).
  • Steer clear chemical sugar additives you might find in milk substitutes including:  Aspartame, Acesulfame-K, Saccharin, sucralose, and monk fruit extract.

This is a great Consumer Report’s table that compares milk and milk substitutes.

There’s a product for everyone’s taste and health needs. The key to buying good milk or milk substitutes is knowing how to read the labels and being aware of what you might be lacking, or overcompensating for, when you fill your glass.

Cheers!