Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives

Bertrand Russell was on point when he said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” I admit that I have strong opinions when it comes to food and nutrition…but I’m really not a fanatic. As such, I do not like to demonize any particular food group, like so many alternative health practitioners do with dairy. I believe that modest amounts of dairy products can be a part of a healthy diet. But as a rule, Americans consume way too much milk, cheese, butter, and other milk-based foods. Most of these are produced by unhealthy cows, are high in saturated fat, and are not as healthy as the “got milk” billboards would like you to believe.  

Lactose intolerance and allergic reactions to casein proteins found in milk are also common. An other non-allergic sensitivities to dairy are on the rise. Did you know that about 65% the world’s population has reduced ability to digest the lactose in milk after infancy? That’s a massive number, and it should make us all think twice about how much dairy we are eating on a daily basis. It is common for my patients to report allergic reactions, breathing problems, excessive mucus production, hives, and GI issues like diarrhea and constipation all in response to consuming dairy.

Here are a few other bones I have to pick with milk.

  • Humans are the only mammal that drinks milk after infancy.
  • Milk does contain a lot of calcium, but the evidence suggests that it doesn’t help build strong bones the way the milk industry says that it does.
  • Many dairy products (especially cheeses) are high in saturated fat…not something we want to encourage.
  • Introducing cow’s milk to infants increases the risk of Type 1 Diabetes in susceptible individuals.  
  • For many individuals, milk and dairy products can trigger a chronic inflammatory or allergic response.

Popular Milk Alternatives

For these and other reasons, many people are choosing alternative milk sources. There are pros and cons to all of these non-dairy milks…let’s take a look at a few of the most popular.

Soy: Although it remains the most popular non-dairy milk, soy is not my first choice when I’m considering a milk alternative. First, most soybeans are genetically modified and heavily sprayed with pesticides. And because soy milk is produced without fermenting the beans (as they are typically consumed in Asia), several compounds in the beans which can irritate the GI tract remain intact, so soy milk causes digestive upset in many people. I think there are better alternatives (see below) but it is true that soy milk is low in both calories and saturated fat which is a good thing. Also, it is a good source of a compound called isoflavones, which studies show can substantially lower the risk of reproductive cancers.

Rice: Rice milk doesn’t have as much nutritional value as other options, and it has a rather thin texture, but many people like the flavor, especially with the added sugar and vanilla you’ll find in many products. Another concern I have is that rice is a grain that tends to absorb toxins from the soil. Recently, both the FDA and health advocacy groups have called attention to the relatively high levels of arsenic in many rice-based products. On the plus side, rice milk is heart healthy and unlikely to trigger allergies but it has more carbohydrates than even cow’s milk. It can be a good choice for people who are allergic, lactose intolerant, but make sure to get an organic, unsweetened product without added artificial ingredients.

Almond: Milk made from almonds has gained quite a following in recent years. It has a great nutty taste and can be a good source of vitamins D and E. It also has no saturated fats or cholesterol. It does contain significantly less protein compared to cow’s milk, so be sure to look for other sources in your diet if you rely on almond milk. Almond milk is also really easy to make yourself which can make it s really cost effective option.  

Coconut:  It’s amazing how much controversy the humble coconut has inspired.  Advocates claim that coconuts are the secret to everlasting health and while critics demonize coconuts like they are a tropical poison.  The truth (of course) lies somewhere in between.  Coconut milk contains very little protein, lots of fat, and plenty of naturally occurring sugar in the form of fructose…and even more when manufacturers add sugar to the final product. My recommendation is to feel free to use coconut milk in Thai-style curries and other recipes but not to use it as a beverage or daily part of your diet.  

Oat: Oat milk is a reasonable vegan alternative to cow’s milk. As you’d expect, oat milk is low in cholesterol, saturated fats, and it’s lactose-free. Also, it has (surprisingly) more calcium than cow’s milk while being a good source of vitamin A and iron. If you are a vegan suffering from anemia, then oat milk can good source to help you increase your iron intake.  Look for products made from organic oats without added sugar.

Hemp: Is there nothing you can’t make from the hemp plant? Hemp milk is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health. It’s also packed with phytonutrients and at least 10 essential amino acids. Early studies suggest that hemp milk is great for your skin and your immune system. And hemp milk is really easy to make at home too.  Just one cup of raw shelled hemp seeds in the blender with 6 cups of water, a few drops a vanilla extract and up to a teaspoon of honey if you prefer a touch of sweetness.   

Takeaway

There are many reasons to reduce the amount of dairy in your diet…and here, we’ve only skimmed the surface of milk alternatives which all have some pros and cons. Compounding matters, carrageenan (an emulsifying and thickening agent) is routinely added to many alternative milk brands. Check the label to avoid this additive because studies show it can trigger chronic inflammation (particularly in the digestive tract).

Beyond that, always look for products that are organic and certified GMO Free. Finally, if you do drink regular milk, only choose products that come from grass-fed cows raised on organic farms. It not only tastes better, but it will be better for you, the cows, and the planet.

Be well,

Dr. Josh

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