Not Milk?
Try these tasty, healthy alternatives to dairy drinks

By Julie Rothschild Levi

If you’re looking for good nutrition from a milk bottle, the choices may surprise you. Nondairy milks, including soy, almond, rice, and oat, are on the rise among health-conscious milk lovers. All are low in saturated fat, naturally free from the cholesterol and lactose found in cow’s milk, and are often enriched with comparable amounts of calcium and vitamins A and D. What’s more, both soy and oat milks have garnered FDA approval for their ability to help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Why else consider a switch? Although cow’s milk offers vital nutrients, including calcium and protein, bovine dairy products have some health experts concerned. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, which means they are unable to digest milk sugar. For others, cow-milk proteins cause an allergic reaction that may include rashes, cramps, or wheezing.

Fortunately, when you want to include milk in your diet, “dairy products are not your only option,” says Brenda Davis, RD, coauthor of Dairy-Free & Delicious (Book Publishing Company, 2001). If you’re willing to milk the possibilities, you can find a host of choices.

Soy Milk
Arguably the most popular dairy replacement in the United States, soy milk is made by grinding soybeans, heating the mix to deactivate enzymes, and then spinning in a centrifuge to remove fiber. The resulting liquid is pasteurized, and sweeteners, flavorings, and nutrients are added. Soy milk is rich in disease-fighting phytochemicals not found in animal products. Soy is also the only plant food containing all eight essential amino acids, making soy milk a quality substitute for animal protein. In 1999, the FDA ruled to allow a rare health claim on soy products: soy’s proven ability to help lower cholesterol. Research also shows that soy milk can lower blood pressure in adults with mild to moderate hypertension (Journal of Nutrition, 2002, vol. 132, no. 7). In addition, a new study conducted in Belgium reveals that childhood soy consumption may lower future risk of breast cancer (Planta Medica, 2003, vol. 69, no. 7).

With this strong scientific backing, soy milk makes a healthy and convenient option. As the nondairy substitute closest in nutrient content and mouth-feel to regular milk, soy is well-suited to myriad needs and is especially helpful to young children and the elderly, who need more protein in their diets.

Almond Milk
At 60 calories per cup, almond milk is a good low-calorie choice for those seeking an alternative to cow’s milk. It’s also richest in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Made by finely grinding skinned almonds in water, commercially processed almond milk loses much of the nutritional punch of whole almonds (including calcium, protein, and vitamin E) through dilution. Manufacturers remedy this problem by fortifying the liquid, with some brands boasting half the daily value for vitamin E (most other milks contain very little of this important antioxidant) and about one-third the calcium and protein of enriched soy and dairy milks.

Many people enjoy making their own almond milk; all you need is a blender and a strainer. “Homemade almond milk imparts an abundance of enzymes, amino acids, and minerals found in fresh, raw foods,” says Janet Doane, author of Almond Essence (Seed Publishing, 2001). Still, for convenience, it’s readily available in cartons. It’s an excellent choice for low-carb or low-calorie diet adherents, with a delicate, nutty flavor that works well in baked goods, desserts, and smoothies.

Grain Milks
Rice milk is a rising favorite in the alternative-milk world, especially for people who may suffer with food allergies. Hypoallergenic rice milk is made by finely grinding brown rice in water, with enzymes added to convert starches to sugars. Enhancements, including flavorings, sweeteners, and nutrients, finish the process. Many consider rice milk’s sweet, somewhat neutral taste to be closest to skim cow’s milk.

Naturally low in fat, rice milk is a plus for those who need to watch their fat intake. However, because it is also low in protein, it may not be suitable for anyone with increased fat and protein needs, such as young children.

Oats, rich in soluble fiber, enjoy scientific backing as a proven cholesterol fighter—and oat milk is no exception. (Its manufacturing process mirrors that of rice milk.) A 1998 Swedish study comparing oat, soy, and cow milks found subjects’ LDL (bad) cholesterol levels dropped most with oat milk (Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 1998, vol. 42, no. 4). It may not, however, be a good option for the gluten-sensitive; oats are commonly grown or stored near wheat and barley, often resulting in cross-contamination. If you’re not concerned with allergies, oat milk provides a fiber-rich, creamy choice for your morning cereal or coffee.

Also on the nondairy scene: blended-grain milks, including rice-soy (with a sweeter, lighter taste than straight soy) and multigrain varieties that combine the high-powered nutrients and fiber of several whole grains. Experiment to find the taste and nutritional qualities best suited to you and your family. With all the options out there, it’s easier than ever to discover which milk does your body good.

Health and nutrition writer Julie Rothschild Levi’s refrigerator is stocked with soy and cow milks. Recipes adapted and reprinted with permission from Dairy-Free & Delicious by Brenda Davis, RD, Bryanna Clark Grogan, and Joanne Stepaniak (Book Publishing Company, 2001).