Dear Lifehacker, I've heard cow's milk is actually bad for you, or at least not beneficial when compared to the many alternative options. But if I shouldn't drink milk, what's the best alternative? Are any of them good? I've heard good and bad things about most, so how do I decide? Sincerely, Mystified by Milk
Milk isn't death juice, and many people can drink it without any awful side effects (at least that we currently know about). That said, a lot of people do have intolerances and allergies that make its consumption troubling. Milk substitutes all have their pros and cons, however, so you just need to pick the one that fits your needs best.
I happen to love almond milk, but it's not perfect either. I just chose it because it seemed like the least offensive of the bunch, and almonds are great! But I don't really know the specific differences, so I reached out to registered dietitian Andy Bellatti for the answer.
Your Primary Options: Soy, Rice, Almond and Coconut
Soy, rice, almond and coconut milk don't make up every cow's milk substitute out there, but they do account for the most common you'll see in the supermarket. I asked Andy to explain the pros and cons of each one, and here's what he said:
- Soy: "Soy milk delivers the same amount of protein as milk. It is also the non-dairy milk that offers the most potassium — a mineral most people do not get enough of that plays a significant role in the regulation of blood pressure. Soy is one of the most common genetically modified crops. Although most soy milks on the market are made from organic soybeans (and therefore non-GMO), it is always good to check the ingredient list. Soy milk is very versatile, and it can be used in anything from cereal and coffee to smoothies and savoury dishes."
- Rice: "Rice milk is the most allergy-friendly of the non-dairy milks."
- Almond: "Almond milk's unique flavour goes great with coffee, cereal, smoothies and oatmeal. It is also super easy to make at home. Simply soak almonds for eight hours, rinse them off, and then blend with water, using a 1:3 cup ratio of nuts to water. You can add your own flavouring/sweetness by also throwing in some vanilla and one or two pitted dates. Then, pour the mixture into a nutmilk bag (available at most health food stores) to separate the liquid ("milk") from the pulp. The pulp can be stored and used to as a base for desserts (or you could even mix it with some coconut oil and oats to make a face scrub)."
- Coconut: "Coconut milk is rich in lauric acid, a heart-healthy saturated fat that improves HDL (good) cholesterol."
As you can see, no milk alternative really functions as a "best option" for anyone. Depending on your needs, one will work better than other. All of them offer some unique benefits.
Problems with Milk Substitutes
Like pretty much any animal product substitute, these "milks" try to emulate the taste of actual dairy - or at least mask it with added ingredients. That means you'll find lots of varieties on store shelves. First and foremost, Andy recommends keeping an eye out for added sugar:
Watch the added sugars. "Plain" varieties average 6g (1.5 teaspoons) of added sugar per cup. Prioritise unsweetened. Watch out for flavoured varieties which can have anywhere from 12g to 20g of added sugar per cup.
You can still get vanilla flavour without the added sugar, however — just look for the "unsweetened" marker on the carton and check the nutrition facts to make sure the branding isn't telling you a lie. Andy also mentioned that milk alternatives may contain carrageenan, a seaweed-based thickening agent that's caused a bit of controversy. If you want to avoid it, just check the label to see if it's in the ingredients. Many manufacturers are now using guar or gellan gum instead. All of that said, Andy suggests the one thing you shouldn't worry too much about is protein content:
While most dairy alternatives (besides soy) are not high in protein, that does not concern me at all because protein intakes in Western countries are high enough. If you're looking to increase protein, you can always use these non-dairy milks as a smoothie base and then add a scoop of protein powder (note, too, that some non-dairy milks now come with added pea protein).
So pick the milk alternative that suits your needs and your taste buds. I've always disliked cow's milk and assumed I wouldn't like an impostor. When I needed a base for a protein shake that was more appealing than water, however, I decided to give almond milk a try. It turned out that I actually really liked the taste, even without sugar or additives. If you'd like to stop drinking milk and consume something that better suits your dietary needs, choose from the above options and try the ones that might work for you. You might wind up preferring it.
This story has been updated since its original publication.