Dairy products may never fully go the way of the milkman, even though it might seem that way with all the milk alternatives on the market. And while it’s tough to compete with the protein, vitamin D and calcium levels found in traditional cow’s milk, those suffering from lactose intolerance and adhering to vegan diets can take solace in knowing there are options extending beyond soy and almond to hemp and coconut.
Off the bat, dietitians and nutritionists advocate smart shopping. “Since regular dairy milk is such a great source of calcium and fortified with vitamin D, make sure that the milk substitutes that you buy are calcium- and vitamin D-fortified,” says Monique Ryan, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and nutritionist, who also suggests shaking the bottle or carton before pouring to fully incorporate the product’s calcium.
Another dairy-free danger? Sugar. “Watch out for versions that are high in sugar, and opt for organic, unsweetened varieties for the greatest health benefits,” says Natasha Uspensky, a holistic health and nutrition counselor in Brooklyn.
More highs and lows to keep in mind while browsing the nondairy aisle:
The Good: There are a scant 40 calories in one serving of unsweetened almond milk, making it a good alternative for the calorie-conscious. It also carries a big calcium dose (nearly half of your daily recommended intake), along with more than half of your daily dose of vitamin E.
The Bad: Almond milk generally has more sodium than most dairy alternatives. And with just one gram of protein per serving, you’ll need to sate your hunger elsewhere.
The Good: Packing more than six grams of protein per cup, soy milk falls just behind dairy in this category. It’s also rich in magnesium, B vitamins and potassium — a vital mineral for healthy neuromuscular function. The ubiquitous substitute also contains 10 percent of a day’s intake of folic acid, which can help prevent against heart disease.
The Bad: Unenriched soy milk can be low in vitamins A through C. It also lags behind in calcium, so don’t skimp on bone-fortifying foods like leafy greens, broccoli and citrus. If you’re hooked on the flavor of soy, opt for enriched varieties that contain more vitamins and calcium.
The Good: Rice milk is a good alternative for those battling allergies to lactose, soy and nuts. Look for versions fortified with vitamins A, D and B12. Of all the options out there, rice milk contains the least amount of fat — most akin to skim milk — making it a reliable choice for those watching cholesterol and saturated fat intake.
The Bad: Traditional rice milk offers only 2 percent of your daily calcium requirement, so seek out enriched versions that provide closer to 30 percent. Don’t expect to feel full after a glass — one serving contains just one gram of protein. Fiber is nowhere to be found, and while rice milk is low in fat, it generally makes up it for in sugar, deeming it a poor choice for diabetics or those cutting back on carbs.
The Good: Beyond the immediate flavor advantages of this tropical alternative is a host of other benefits, like impressive amounts of lauric acid (the good kind of saturated fat), vitamin B12 and magnesium, which can help reduce anxiety and boost energy levels.
The Bad: Here’s where saturated fat rears its head. If you choose coconut milk as your go-to, be sure to consume it in moderation. Additionally, you’ll want to seek out protein elsewhere — there is none to be found.
The Good: Hemp milk is loaded with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which help to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s light on calories, with just 80 per serving. And while it ranks on the higher end of the fat scale, with up to eight grams per cup, a mere half gram of that is saturated. Hemp milk provides drinkers with between 20 and 35 percent of daily needed amounts of phosphorous, which supports healthy bones and teeth.
The Bad: Not much is found on the protein front, with only two grams per cup, and its richer texture and flavor deem it a hard sell for those seeking a seamless dairy to dairy-free transition. “One downfall is its distinctive nutty flavor,” says Uspensky. “It doesn’t appeal to everyone.”
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