Dairy Alternatives

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.

Dairy alternatives are becoming more popular.

While cow milk sales have gently fallen over the past 2 decades, there has been a growing interest in choosing tasty alternative beverages to cow milk. Various reasons guide such choices. These include concerns over lactose intolerance (35 to 50 million Americans are thought to be lactose intolerant, including 9 out f every 10 Asian Americans), allergies to dairy, the antibiotics and growth hormones given to cows, and a desire to seek foods that are lower in saturated fat. For some people it is a matter of making a plant-based choice.

 The environmental impact of beverages is also a consumer concern. Plant-based beverages have a smaller carbon footprint than dairy milk. The production and packaging of cow milk is associated with 2.5 times the greenhouse gas emissions that are associated with soy milk production and packaging. In addition, a gallon of cow milk requires 4 times more water to produce than a gallon of soy, almond, or rice milk. Furthermore, many of the plant beverages are organic and are listed as GM free.

Total retail sales of soy, almond, rice, and other plant milks reached $1.22 billion in 2011. Last year, soy milk accounted for 69% of the dairy alternative market, almond milk 21%, rice milk 7%, and coconut milk 3%. The sale of dairy alternatives is expected to continue significant growth over the next 5 years. Each one of these beverages has its own distinctive flavor and the nutritional profile may vary.

The dairy alternatives can be used on cereal or in your favorite recipe, or for making popular smoothies. Because some consumers have been influenced by the unwarranted negative press about soy, they have switched to almond milk as a tasty, healthy and nutritious alternative. The market for almond milk is presently growing at an impressive 50%.

The fortified beverages are often touted for their nutritional advantages, having less saturated fat (except coconut milk), lower calories (some almond milks have 25% fewer calories than dairy skim milk), zero cholesterol, no high fructose corn syrup, and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. One brand of Silk actually has 32 mg of the omega-3 fatty acid (DHA) required for brain function. Soy is also recommended as a heart healthy choice due to its content of health-promoting isoflavones. In selecting a plant beverage, choose one that contains 7 or less grams of sugar per serving. While soy beverages contain a good 7 grams of protein per cup, the almond, rice and coconut beverages contain a mere 1 gram of protein per serving.

A plant-based beverage should not be used for infant feeding. The beverage should provide at least 25-30% of the recommended daily value (%DV) of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium, nutrients which may be hard to get in a vegetarian diet without using dairy. Those that are not fortified as such should not be used for growing children. Home-made soy milk also lacks the fortification necessary for it to be considered a nutritious beverage.

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