Cow’s milk versus the alternatives
Posted on 16 November 2016
You may have noticed that there are far more options in the milk aisle at the supermarket these days. Many plant-based milk alternatives such as almond and soy have graduated beyond health food status to become more commonly available and consumed. We asked a Mediclinic dietician about plant-based milk alternatives.
Please note that this article is not intended to offer any information on infant feeding and relates purely to an adult diet.
The milk of the matter: which is healthier?
When people seek alternatives to cow’s milk, usually it’s due to milk allergies or lactose intolerance (discomfort after consuming milk products), they’re following a vegan diet or suffering from sinusitis.
‘Because of the calcium contained in cow’s milk, alternative milk is not necessarily healthier, ’ says Dr Driekie Rankin, a referring dietician at Mediclinic Potchefstroom. ‘It’s also dependent on the reason for choosing a milk alternative – for example, for someone who is lactose intolerant it would be better to drink easy-to-digest milk, and soya milk would be more preferable than rice or coconut milk. However, it’s important to consult with a dietician before making such dietary changes,’ she advises.
Dr Rankin cautions that parents who are concerned that their child may be lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy should first consult with their doctor or dietician before swapping dairy products for non-dairy alternatives.
Here’s a look at the more widely available plant-based milk alternatives:
Rice milk is commonly derived from brown rice. As it’s naturally sweet it is usually unsweetened. It’s a good option for those with a nut allergy and is also naturally gluten-free. Rice milk is not a good source of protein, however, containing just 1-2 grams of protein per cup, compared to 8 grams of protein per cup of regular cow’s milk. As with most commercially available milk, it is usually fortified with vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium and vitamins B3 and 12.
‘Consider your dietary requirements and be sure to check the label, as rice milk has a higher sugar and sodium composition than soy milk,’ Dr Rankin advises.
Almond milk is made from ground almonds and water and is possibly the most widely used milk alternative because of its light, nutty flavour. It’s a popular ingredient in smoothies and works well with breakfast cereals. It is also a good source of unsaturated fats, and free of saturated fats. Some variants are sweetened, so always be sure to check the label. Some brands have also adapted their recipe to make the milk creamier and frothy for use in hot beverages. As with rice milk, almond milk contains just 1 gram of protein per cup and is also lower in fat than cow’s milk. Almond milk is high in vitamin E.
Soy milk is extracted from soya beans and contains about the same amount of protein per cup as cow’s milk. For many people it resembles the taste of regular milk more than other plant-based milk alternatives. It is often fortified with vitamins A and D, calcium and riboflavin. Soy milk is not advised for those with soy allergies. Where possible, choose a brand that does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
This creamy milk is closest in texture to full-cream cow’s milk. Coconut milk has a distinctly sweet coconut flavour and is often used in baking and desserts, and is a common ingredient in southeast Asian cooking and curry recipes. Coconut milk is high in saturated fats, containing about 5 grams per cup. If you are following a low-fat diet or have concerns about including coconut milk in your diet, consult with your doctor or dietician.