Are Milk Alternatives (Like Soy and Almond Milk) Healthier Than Dairy Milk?
For centuries, dieticians, doctors, and other health professionals touted milk as an essential part of any balanced diet. It’s the first food that most newborns eat, and their only food source for at least a few months after their birth. Milk is such a staple food for so many people that it’s hard to believe that some people are allergic to it, or can’t tolerate it as well as others.
One of the primary components of milk that many people are intolerant of is lactose. This is because the production of lactase, the enzyme that helps the small intestine to absorb lactose, declines significantly after babies are weaned.
This means that for some people, as they mature, their bodies stop producing lactase almost entirely. This makes it extremely difficult and painful for them to digest cow’s milk. There are no ways to reverse or prevent this from happening, but people can take lactase pills to assist their system in digesting dairy.
There are also some people who are born with CMA (cow’s milk allergy), which means that their system is allergic to one or many of the other proteins found in cow’s milk.
Many people who are allergic to cow’s milk find themselves more comfortable drinking other types of animal milk. Goat, buffalo and sheep milks are also regularly drunk by humans, as well as used to make foods like cheese and yogurt.
There are a few other types of animal milk available around the world – including horse, donkey, camel, reindeer, yak, and moose milks — but these rarer milks make up a tiny percentage of what humans consume worldwide.
However, there are tons of people around the world who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t comfortable ingesting animal milk. Whether they’ve chosen a vegan diet or just prefer not to drink it, there are plenty of alternatives for them!
Soy milk originated in China around 200 BCE, but really grew in popularity in the 1800s, after a process was introduced that heated the soy milk and made it easier for humans to digest — fortunately, this process also made it taste better.
The first brand of soy milk was introduced to the States in 1979 by the Vitasoy company, and it really took off once people discovered its nutritional benefits. Soy milk contains about the same amount of protein as cow’s milk, but it contains way more dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals per serving. You can even make it at home, although it’s much easier to buy it in cartons or in individuals serving sizes from the grocery store.
Soy milk is much easier on the planet, as it takes way less energy to produce a gallon of soy milk than to produce a gallon of cow’s milk. Since soybeans are legumes, they also replenish the soil with nitrogen, which makes them a very valuable crop for farmers to have in their fields.
Almond milk is made in a similar way to soy milk. First, ground almonds are soaked in water, then pureed together to the desired consistency. Almond milk doesn’t need to be heated before consuming, which makes it much easier to make at home.
Although it has been around since the Middle Ages, almond milk didn’t really take off in popularity until the early 2000s. Although it’s lower in protein than both soy and dairy milk, almond milk has only risen in popularity, and as of 2013, studies have shown that more people drink almond milk than soy milk.
Although not many people in North America drink pure coconut milk regularly, it is so useful for cooking that it shouldn’t be overlooked. Coconut milk is made from grated coconut soaked in water, and is very high in saturated fat, which makes it perfect to cook with but not as great for drinking plain.
Coconut milk is a staple in different cuisines around the world, and many cooks use it to add a sweet taste and creamy texture to different sauces, stews, and stir-fries. It also tastes delicious added to coffee in place of cream.
There are many other non-dairy milks out there — such as hemp milk and rice milk — that everyone should try — regardless of whether or not they can ingest dairy. However, it has been shown that only soy milk has the same amount of proteins, vitamins, and minerals as cow’s milk. These proteins are often difficult to get from any other source.
Cow’s milk is high in calcium — one cup equals about 30% to 35% of the recommended daily intake of calcium for most adults. However, many non-dairy milks now include added calcium — make sure to shake the container before pouring out a glass, so that the calcium mixes in equally and doesn’t end up at the bottom of the jug.
Cow’s milk also contains a high percentage of Vitamin D — about 45% of the daily recommended intake per serving. Soy and other non-dairy milks generally contain only about 25-10% of the daily value of Vitamin D per cup.
The Final Word
While both cow’s milk and non-dairy milks are an integral part of any diet, you need to make sure you understand what’s in each one before committing to only drinking one for the rest of your life.
Cow’s milk contains more calcium and Vitamin D, but also contains more sugar — lactose, the protein in milk that many people are allergic to, is a natural sugar. If you don’t want to drink dairy milk, make sure that you choose non-dairy milks that are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, or take pills to make up for any potential deficiencies in your diet.
As well, all of your careful planning can go out the window if you choose flavored non-dairy milks — these are often enhanced with more sugar and artificial ingredients than you can imagine.