Thursday, November 08, 2012

Lactose Intolerant? Going Vegan? You'll Need A Substitute For Milk. Here's How To Select The Best Non-Dairy Milk Alternative!

What's the best milk for your morning breakfast cereal?

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You Might Be Lactose Intolerant
Do you get bloated or nauseous after eating dairy products or do you get gas pains or cramps in your abdomen? If so, you may lack lactase, an enzyme that is needed to properly digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. An astounding 65% of adults worldwide lose the ability to produce this enzyme after weaning. The problem varies greatly with ethnicity. About 20% of North American whites have this issue while three out of four African Americans and about 50% of Latinos are lactose intolerant. Given that the average American consumes over 600 pounds of dairy per year, there may be quite a few people walking around out there feeling lousy! I personally cannot eat dairy without getting severe stomach cramps. 
Vegans and those who are lactose intolerant continually search for delicious and nutritious dairy substitutes. And now it's easier than ever.

In Search of the Perfect Milk Substitute
Years ago, all non-dairy milk products came in little boxes that sat on the shelf, unrefrigerated. Those products are still available and are quite convenient when you want to store them in your pantry or pop them into your lunch box. But today there are many "fresh" non-dairy milk substitutes that are found in the refrigerated section of your supermarket and they are quite superior in taste.  Every week for the past month or so I bought a different brand. I have now tasted them all and analyzed them for their nutritional content. You may be quite surprised at what I found.

Almond Milk
I tried 2 brands of unsweetened almond milk, Blue Diamond Almond Breeze and Silk Pure Almond. What sets almond milk apart from the others is their very low calorie count, Silk Pure Almond being the lowest with only 30 calories a cup. Nutritionally they were both very highly fortified with calcium at 450 mg per cup and also contained 50% of the daily requirement of vitamin E. They were the only milk substitute that has zero grams of sugar.  Cow milk contains 12 to 13 grams of sugar per cup. Both almond milk brands contained more sodium than the other types of non-dairy milk, 150 mg to 180 mg per cup.
I found almond milk to be absolutely delicious.

Creamy and delicious
Very low in calories
More calcium than cow's milk
High in vitamin E
Highest in sodium
Make from Non-GMO almonds
Gluten free

You can also make your own raw almond milk very easily if you have a high speed blender. 

Soy Milk
I've tried both Silk and Earth Balance soy milk and they are both creamy and delicious. They are also a significant source of protein, providing 7 grams per cup, while the other non-dairy milks have 1g or less. This compares very favorably with cow's milk which provides 8 grams per cup and has the advantage of not having saturated fat or cholesterol. Some avoid soy products because they fear that they increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence but recent data shows that soy might, in fact, reduce the risk
Warning: Soy milk can give you some gas - after all, it's bean juice! Introduce it into your diet gradually.

Creamy and delicious
Very high in protein
Contains the same amount of calcium as cow's milk
Silk contains 320 mg of ALA Omega-3
Organic soy milk is made from non-GMO soybeans
Gluten free
I also make my own soy milk with a SoyaPower Plus.

Original Rice Dream

Vegans have been enjoying Rice Dream for years and now it's offered in the fresh, refrigerated version. It's thinner than some of the other milks but it is delicious. What surprises me the most about this product is that it's very high in calories (120 per cup) and contains a high amount of "natural" sugars (10 g per cup) - as no sweeteners are added. To compare, Silk Pure Almond contains 1/4th of the calories and zero grams of sugar.
So if you are watching your weight, this might not be your best option.

Thinner consistency but delicious
Higher in calories and natural sugars
Contains the same amount of calcium as cow's milk
Gluten free

Coconut Milk
So Delicious makes some wonderful ice creams, coconut creamers and other products so I was anxious to try their dairy free coconut milk. It's hard to believe this thick and creamy milk has only 45 calories. I actually found the milk to be too thick for my cereal although it's great in a smoothie. It also is high in saturated fat (4 grams per cup). There are some who think that saturated fats from coconuts are not only safe but provide health benefits. I'm not yet convinced of that and while I feel it is probably fine to enjoy this coconut milk beverage frequently, I probably wouldn't use it as my only source of non-dairy milk. That aside, I didn't actually enjoy it nearly as much as almond, soy or rice milk.

Low in calories
High in saturated fat
Very thick and creamy (almost too thick)
Contains 1/3rd the amount of calcium as cow's milk
Made from non-GMO coconuts
Gluten free

To Summarize
There are many wonderful dairy free, gluten free alternatives to cow's milk for those of you who are lactose intolerant, vegan or on a low cholesterol diet.
The lowest calorie products are almond milk and coconut milk. Silk PureAlmond Unsweetened almond milk has the lowest amount with only 30 calories per cup. The highest calories are from Rice Dream Enriched Refrigerated Original. Soy milk contains about the same as skim dairy milk. 
All of the non-dairy products contain a modest amount of total fat ranging from 2.5 grams to 4.5 grams per cup. All, except So Delicious Coconut milk, contain insignificant amounts of saturated fat. So Delicious Coconut milk contains 4 grams of saturated fat per cup. To compare, whole dairy milk contains 8 grams of total fat and 5 grams of saturated fat. Skim milk contains neither.
There seems to be a race among our food providers to see who can load us down with the most calcium. I worry about that because I fear that people are taking too many calcium supplements .  If your doctor has you taking 1,000 mg of calcium supplements a day and then you drink 2 cups of Almond Breeze, you just got another 900 mg of calcium. And that's not counting the calcium you are getting from tofu, greens, fortified orange juice, etc. So be aware of what you are consuming from all sources. 
Also, you should note that for the optimal absorption of calcium, you need to consume magnesium at about a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium. Fortified foods, such as these milk products, add lots of calcium but don't add much magnesium. 
Dairy milk has lots of sugar (12 to 13 grams per cup) - that's why people are lactose intolerant - they can't digest the lactose sugar. Except for the Original Rice Dream, all the non-dairy milk alternatives are very low in sugar with 1 gram or less per cup. Rice dream contains a whopping 10 grams per cup. 
If you need a good source of protein, soy milk provides 7 grams per cup, nearly as much as dairy milk. The others tested do not provide a significant amount of protein.
All dairy and non-dairy milks have about 80 to 120 plus mg of sodium per cup except for So Delicious Coconut Milk Beverage which only has 15 mg. 

Of course at the end of the day you have to love the taste of the product and that is something you have to determine for yourself. (I guarantee you that all of these will beat the taste of non-fat, skim milk!). You also will have to pick one that satisfies your dietary needs. I hope this paper helps you in the search for YOUR perfect non-dairy milk alternative!


Fiona said...

Thank you for this very informative post! I like to mix it up with both non-dairy and dairy consumption. One change I've made recently is to switch from non-organic skim cow's milk to organic whole cow's milk (mostly in my morning coffee) - as I've heard that the fats in whole milk help the body absorb milk's nutrients better and help balance out the lactose. Do you happen to have any insights into that? Thanks again for sharing your findings!

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

Hi Fiona,
Unfortunately I have no insight into the ability of full fat dairy's ability to balance out lactose. If you don't have enough lactase enzyme to digest the lactose sugar, I don't understand how consuming fat would help that. Non-fat milk and whole milk contain the same amount of lactose sugar.
There's much written on what is the best dairy - whether it be whole vs. skim vs. raw (were I to drink any dairy I'd probably opt for raw milk from pasture raised cows). My personal opinion, however, is that there are far better ways to obtain protein and calcium than from dairy products in general. Of course just adding some in your morning coffee isn't going to significantly help or harm you so you should let taste and enjoyment be your guide.
A book that made a very big impression on me, that you might want to review, is called "Whitewash: The disturubing truth about cow's milk and your health". The high consumption of dairy is associated with many illness and surprisingly does not seem to help with bone health and optimum calcium absorption.
But like I said, if we are just talking about topping off that morning cup of joe, it doesn't matter that much if you aren't lactose intolerant and have no issue with consuming animal products.
Thanks for your comment Fiona.

Fiona said...

And thank you for your thoughtful reply! I will have to check out the book you suggest, for sure.