Milking It

Recently, a friend asked my opinion on alternative milks. There are so many options out there right now, that it is hard to figure out which is the right milk for your diet.

Cow’s milk is the first type we think of. Even that comes in a variety of versions, from skim, 1% and 2% milk fat, lactose free, and regular, not to mention, organic, conventional and antibiotic and hormone free.

Cow’s milk contains high levels of calcium and vitamin D, which are essential to bone health. It is also a good source of protein.

Regular milk contains about 150 calories per cup, and half of those calories come from fat, and cholesterol. Skimmed or fat free versions, offer the same benefits, and significantly fewer calories; about 86 per cup.

For those who are not on a dairy free diet, or are lactose intolerant, fat free or 1% milk seems the way to go. Antibiotic and hormone free is a non-negotiable in my book.

Soy milk gained prominence several years ago, as a good plant based alternative to cow’s milk. It is fortified to have the same levels of protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, and potassium. Because it is a plant product, it has no cholesterol and is usually low in fat. However, many soy milks are artificially flavored, which means there is a wide swing in calorie and sugar counts. While the plain versions pack only about 70-80 calories per cup, the flavored and sweetened types can have as much as 160 calories per cup and 19 grams of sugar. It is a great alternative for those who cannot tolerate dairy, or are vegan; just beware the artificial sweeteners or high sugar contents.

Almond milk seems to be the current milk option of choice. It contains no cholesterol, or lactose. It also contains much less protein and calcium than the other milks. It is a great source of iron, vitamin E and omega 6 fatty acids. Nuts have been linked to lower cholesterol and reduced risk of heart disease. However, not all commercial almond milks are filled with almonds. There are also lots of sweetened and flavored versions on the market that add calories and sugar. The average cup of unsweetened almond milk has only 30-40 calories. It is a good option for those looking to avoid lactose, or dairy in general, or use a lower calorie, vegan substitute for cow’s milk.

Coconut milk is another vegan choice that is gaining popularity. It has only 50 calories per cup and no cholesterol. It does not contain the same amount of protein and calcium as cow’s milk, but does have some healthy fatty acids not found in other milks. It is dairy and lactose free, and like the others, comes in a variety of flavors.

Rice milk is another alternative, with lower levels of protein and calcium than cow’s milk. Its relatively mild taste makes it less necessary to buy a flavored variety. Plain rice milk contains 113 calories per cup, making it the most caloric of the plant based milks. It is good for those who have allergies to soy, dairy, or nuts, and cannot tolerate some of the other options.

When looking for the perfect type of milk, choose something that tastes good and suits your dietary concerns. Remember that while cow’s milk is a great source of protein, calcium and vitamin D, there are lots of other ways to get those elements in your diet. A balanced diet gets its nutrition from a variety of sources, and is not reliant on one food group to provide the healthy daily requirements that are a key to a good diet.

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