Milk … Or Something Like It
Almond, rice, hemp and coconut are just a few of the options in the increasingly popular milk-substitute market. But are they as nutritious as the real deal?
They’re cream-colored, thirst-quenching and varyingly nutritious. Their roots aren’t in a dairy farm, however.
Instead, newly booming nondairy beverages like soy, hemp, rice, almond, oat and coconut originate in plants.
For those with an allergy or intolerance to dairy milk or those following a vegan diet, plant beverages likely are commonplace.
For those under the age of 45 looking to improve their diets, these are healthier options than milk, according to a recent market research report from Mintel International Group.
But do plant beverages deliver the nutrients people need?
The short answer: maybe.
“There’s a lot of nutrient variation not only between different types, such as soy and hemp, but also within the type,” says Matthew Ruscigno, a registered dietitian, Los Angeles.
Since plant beverages don’t have uniform formulations, consumers may find that one brand of hemp milk has 140 milligrams of sodium and another brand only 5 milligrams. They’ll also find a wide variance in calories, fat and nutrients. In addition, consumers may find that some beverages include added sweeteners.
When selecting plant beverages, take dietary needs into account and read the labels for each brand and each type, nutrition experts say.
Calories, which may be first on the list, can range from 50 to 140 per cup. Hemp can vary by 40 calories per cup, depending on the brand.
Make sure the calories aren’t coming from added sweeteners, Ruscigno cautions. He recommends buying plain, not flavored beverages, to reduce or avoid the amount of sweetener in each serving.
For those consuming a milk-like drink for the recommended daily allowance of calcium, don’t assume it delivers, and check the label.
“Many [plant beverages] have calcium added that’s close to or equal to that in cow’s milk, but you have to look. Calcium is not in all of them,” says Ruscigno, who’s been a vegan since age 15.
Like calcium, vitamin D fortification can vary. Major soy beverage producers are adding vitamin D to make it comparable to dairy milk, he says.
Check for vitamin B12, which is in cow’s milk, says Keri M. Gans, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Some manufacturers add B12 to their plant beverages; others don’t.
If dairy milk is a major protein source, especially in the morning, consumers are not going to get the same amount with an alternative, according to Gans.
Soy beverages come closest at 7 grams of protein per cup, compared with 8.26 grams protein for skim milk.
However, in some nutrient comparisons, such as dietary fiber, plant beverages may do better than dairy milk, which doesn’t contain fiber.
Whole-grain rice beverages provide three grams of dietary fiber per cup – more than a slice of whole-wheat bread.
Oat beverage, like oats, is a source of soluble fiber, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Adding oat beverage to morning oatmeal can significantly boost soluble fiber intake.
Although omega-3 fatty acids are hemp’s claim to nutritional fame, Gans cautions that hemp isn’t the optimal source of the fatty acids.
As plants, these beverages are good sources of carbohydrates. But for those at risk for diabetes, it might be crucial to get the product lowest in carbohydrates, according to Gans, who is in a private practice in New York City.
With such great variance in benefits, it’s tempting to stick with the beverage type with the best nutrition package. Instead, mix it up to get the best of plant beverages, the experts say.
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