Understanding milk alternatives
Over the past decade, milk alternatives have gone mainstream. Whether you’re looking for low calorie or high protein, there’s something out there for everyone. But with so many options available, how do you know which one is best? Here’s everything nutrition professionals need to know about recommending plant-based milk options to clients.
It wasn’t that long ago when cow’s milk was the only dairy option available on the market. This often spelled disaster for people who wanted to avoid milk, as plant-based alternatives were scarce, if they were even available at all.
Fast forward to today, and things have dramatically changed. Milk-like beverages are now made from all sorts of plants–including nuts, seeds, and grains–and can be readily found at any grocery store.
However, each type of milk alternative has pros and cons, so as a nutrition professional, it’s important to understand the differences so you can recommend the best plant-based options to your clients.
From soy milk to nut milk, here’s everything you need to know about plant-based milk.
Why milk alternatives?
While cow’s milk has long been a popular choice, the rise of milk alternatives has made it clear that dairy isn’t the only way to go. There are several reasons why your clients may be making the shift toward plant-based alternatives, including:
- Allergies and intolerances. Cow milk allergies affect up to 3% of the pediatric population and lactose intolerance affects an estimated 38% of Americans [1,2]. Additionally, certain populations such as Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans have a much higher prevalence of lactose intolerance .
- Environmental reasons. Water usage, land requirements, and greenhouse gas emissions are just a few of the concerns that have led to a shift to plant-based options.
- Taste. Plant-based milks have a variety of flavors to choose from, making them a popular choice to switch things up.
- Diet. If your client is vegan (or looking to switch to veganism), then plant-based milks are their only option. Learn more about how you can support your client’s nutritional needs on a vegan diet.
Types of milk alternatives
The popularity of milk alternatives has risen significantly over the past decade, which means there has been an increase in the number of options available. Let’s examine these plant-based milks in more detail to get a better understanding of their nutritional content.
Soy milk was one of the first plant-based options to hit supermarket shelves, and remains one of the most frequently used non-dairy milks to this day. Out of all the alternative milks, soy has the most similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk, and happens to be a more affordable choice.
When it comes to nutrition, soy milk is one of the few choices that has all essential amino acids. Additionally, it contains isoflavones, which are a compound that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties . While there have been concerns about the phytoestrogens in soy products, research has shown that soy is safe and has significant health benefits .
Note: if your client has a soybean allergy, they should avoid soy milk.
If your client is looking for a variety of flavors, then nut milks are the way to go. Nutritionally speaking, nut milks are lower in calories and protein than cow’s milk, but are high in monounsaturated fats and vitamins, and frequently fortified to include calcium and iron .
Unfortunately, tree nut allergies are one of the 8 most common food allergies, so this option may not be suitable for everyone .
Here are a few types of nut milks available on the market:
- Almond milk. This is the most frequently used alternative milk and has surpassed soy milk in popularity. It has a light nutty flavor and it can easily be substituted in cooking recipes or enjoyed in beverages, cereals, and smoothies. Almond milk has the lowest number of calories, and is a good source of calcium and vitamins D and E .
- Cashew milk. This has a higher fat content than almond and soy milks, but that is what gives it a creamy texture. Cashew milk is rich in monounsaturated fats (which have been shown to help reduce cardiovascular disease) and is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin .
You can also find macadamia, hazelnut, walnut, and peanut nut milks for sale in certain stores.
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If your client is allergic to soybeans or nuts, then here are some other plant-based options that could work for their needs.
- Oat milk. This popular option has gone mainstream over the past few years due to its creamy texture and mild flavor. Nutritionally speaking, oat milk has more protein and fiber than nut milks, but it is also higher in carbohydrates . As such, this may not be ideal for clients with diabetes, but a gluten-free option is recommended for clients who have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
- Rice milk. This option is a great alternative for those with multiple food allergies, and is the least likely to cause an allergic reaction. Like oat milk, rice milk is higher in carbohydrates, so it may not be suitable for those with diabetes. Rice milk also lacks other micronutrients, so it’s important to ensure your client’s nutritional needs are being met with other foods .
- Coconut milk. This milk alternative has a distinct flavor that may not be suitable for all foods, taste preferences, or substitutions. While it is a relatively low calorie choice, it also contains no protein. However, it could be a heart-healthy alternative, as research has shown that coconut fats may help raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels .
- Hemp milk. Hemp milk has more protein than other plant based milks, and contains all of the essential amino acids . It’s also low in calories, but has a thin, watery texture that some people may not enjoy.
- Quinoa milk. This is one of the newest options on the market, and contains a moderate amount of calories, protein, and carbohydrates. It’s also a good source of riboflavin, and zinc, and has a slightly sweet and nutty flavor .
Which option is best for your clients?
With so many choices available on the market, it can be difficult to sort through the noise and find the right fit. However, here are some things to consider when helping your client choose the right milk alternatives.
- Fortification: Almost every alternative milk is fortified in some way, with the most common additions being calcium, iron, and vitamin D. When determining which alternative milk to recommend to your clients, it is important to look at specific brands and products, since there can be significant variations in nutritional value between companies.
- Health concerns: As a nutrition professional, you should evaluate the client as a whole to determine which milk alternative will best suit their needs. For instance, rice milk and oat milk tend to be higher in carbohydrates, and may not be the best choice for those with diabetes. Additionally, clients who have high cholesterol will have different needs compared to those with gluten intolerance.
- Cost and availability: Alternative milks are more expensive than dairy milk, and some of the specialty options are even more pricey. While some will find the benefits worth the extra cost, there are some people who simply cannot afford the extra expense. Along with the price, availability may be an issue for some clients as well. Those who live in rural communities or depend on public transportation may not have as many options available at their local grocery stores. As such, you should take these things into consideration when recommending milk alternatives.
There are many reasons why your clients may be interested in alternative milk products, but with so many options to choose from, it can get overwhelming. As a nutrition professional, it’s important to understand the differences between the different plant-based milk options so you can sort through the noise and provide the best nutritional guidance possible to your clients.
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- Carucci, L., Coppola, S., Luzzetti, A., Voto, L., Giglio, V., & Paparo, L. et al. (2021). Immunonutrition for Pediatric Patients With Cow's Milk Allergy: How Early Interventions Could Impact Long-Term Outcomes. Frontiers In Allergy, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/falgy.2021.676200
- Intolerance, D., & Health, N. (2022). Definition & Facts for Lactose Intolerance | NIDDK. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved 23 April 2022, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance/definition-facts.
- Vanga, S. K., & Raghavan, V. (2018). How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow's milk?. Journal of food science and technology, 55(1), 10–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y
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- Is Oat Milk Healthy?. Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Retrieved 22 April 2022, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-oat-milk-good-for-you-a-dietitian-explains-this-trendy-dairy-alternative/.
- Hemp Milk: Nutrition, Benefits and How to Make It. Healthline. (2022). Retrieved 22 April 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/hemp-milk#what-it-is.
- Kaur, I., & Tanwar, B. (2016). Quinoa Beverages: Formulation, Processing and Potential Health Benefits. Romanian Journal Of Diabetes Nutrition And Metabolic Diseases, 23(2), 215-225. https://doi.org/10.1515/rjdnmd-2016-0026