19 July 2017What's Up with All the Milks?

After receiving local milk delivery for 20 years while raising our kids, now as empty nesters, my husband and I decided to get our weekly 1/2 gallon of 1% at the grocery store. We do miss the farm-fresh milk, especially my husband, who indulged in a glass of low-fat chocolate milk as his morning energy boost. So, I now find myself staring at the dairy case, amazed at the ever-expanding non-dairy options crowding out the cow's milk. According to data from the USDA, Americans are drinking about 37% less cow's milk today than they did in 1970. Yogurt and cheese sales are thriving so you can't really say it is all about people wanting to decrease animal food intake.

Why have non-dairy, plant-based milks become so popular? There are several reasons for the change in consumer demand. One reason is that cow's milk allergy is the #1 food allergy in children. According to experts, between 2-3% of children younger than 3 years are allergic to milk. By the way, people with cow's milk allergy are usually also allergic to sheep or goat's milk. Experts also report that food allergies are on the rise in the US. Lactose intolerance, the inability to digest lactose (cow's milk sugar) is another reason consumers are using cow's milk alternatives. Another reason is that health research showing the benefits of a plant-based diet is resulting in people choosing more plant-based milks, like soy or almond milk. And, of course, media coverage, celebrity endorsement, and fad diet books focusing on foods, like coconut, are another reason products like coconut milk are flying off the shelf. The dairy industry has tried marketing strategies such as the "Got Milk" ad campaign but has fallen behind the aggressive advertisement of almond, soy, coconut and other plant-based alternatives.

Keep in mind, not all milks are the same nutritionally. Here are some tips to optimize your choices:

  • Cow's milk provides a number of important nutrients, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. It is important to look at the food label of non-dairy milks to see if they have these nutrients. For example, calcium is listed as a percentage on labels. Add a zero to the % to get the amount of mg. One cup of cow's milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Look for milks that are fortified with calcium as well as the above nutrients.
  • Also, consider your overall diet to ensure you are getting alternative nutrient sources you may be missing when consuming the plant-based milks. Nutrition experts know that natural sources of nutrients are absorbed and used by the body better than fortified nutrients. Are you eating high calcium foods, like leafy greens, broccoli, seeds and quinoa? Are you including potassium sources like potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, and peppers? What about vitamin B12 sources like meat, salmon, eggs, and nutritional yeast?
  • Look at the ingredient list of your milk choice. Is it more processed than you realized? Does it have extra sugar added? Select the unsweetened types and try to limit the added sugar at to less than 10 g per serving.
  • Several brands of nut and grain milks are now offering added protein to boost the protein content.
  • Filtered cow's milk is also new to the market. It is nutrient-rich with protein and calcium, and it is creamier and richer. It is labeled as "high protein" milk and may be a good choice if you need extra protein. Keep in mind that sodium is also higher in these milks.

Here are pros and cons of some of the plant-based milks on the market:

  • Soy milk: Closest to cow's milk in protein content; has a nutty, bean flavor; useful to boost protein in shakes; works well in baking.
  • Rice milk: Low in calories but also low in protein; has no saturated fat; sweet, nutty flavor; most hypoallergenic choice that is often used for multiple food allergies.
  • Nut milks (almond, cashew): Plain types are lowest calorie plant-based milk option; very low carb so nice option with cereal for diabetes; nutty flavor.
  • Pea milk: Another high protein choice; usually has added oil for creaminess; pea flavor that is slightly bitter.
  • Coconut milk: High in saturated fat; zero protein; slightly tart coconut flavor. Oat milk: Has half the protein of cow's milk; adds fiber to diet; high calorie, high carbohydrate content; looks like eggnog; has sweet oat flavor.

Plant-based milks vary in, calories, fat content and the amount of sweetener added. Bottom line: Do a little homework to see what might fit your needs and don't just grab a plant-based milk simply because of slick advertising.

Brenda Braslow, MS, RD, CDE
Registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Indialantic, Florida
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Foods & Recipes/Dairy Foods Alcohol & Other Beverages/Milk

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