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Ask the RD

What are your thoughts about all of the different types of milk now available—such as coconut, almond and rice milk?

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Answer: The variety and availability of dairy-alternative milks have exploded in the marketplace. This is good news for vegans and vegetarians who require plant-based beverages or for those who do not consume dairy products. Dairy-alternative milks also help people with health conditions such as milk allergy and lactose intolerance.

Consumers are faced with a plethora of options when it comes to choosing what to pour over their cereal each morning. Soy, coconut, almond, rice and hemp milks are available in myriad variations, such as plain, flavored, sweetened, unsweetened, low-fat and nonfat. Which is best? It depends on what you’re looking for. All are plant-based, making them good milk replacement choices if you are shifting toward a plant-based diet. Compared with cow’s milk, many have added ingredients. For example, sugar naturally occurs in cow’s milk in the form of lactose, while many dairy-alternative milks contain added sugars. Consumers wanting to lose or maintain weight should go for the plain, unsweetened, low-fat or nonfat varieties.

Here are some nutrition pros and cons for the most popular plant-based milks: soy, almond, coconut and rice milk.

  • Soy. The protein content of soymilk is comparable to that of cow’s milk, averaging 9 grams per cup. Soymilk also offers fiber and isoflavones, disease-fighting plant compounds. Add protein to breakfast cereal with unsweetened soymilk or cow’s milk.
  • Almond. Like almonds, almond milk is a good source of polyunsaturated fats, magnesium, manganese, vitamin E, selenium and antioxidants. Almond milk is flavorful, is low in calories and can make a nice addition to smoothies.
  • Coconut. The coconut milk that can now be found in cartons is not the same as canned coconut milk used as the base of Thai curry dishes. The type sold in cartons is creamy, like soymilk, but low in protein. Try a splash in coffee, or use it to prepare a creamy soup. Take note: Coconut milk is high in saturated fat, but it’s a type of fat that, at this point, seems to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels. However, if you have high cholesterol, it may be wise to choose a different variety of milk until further evidence addresses concerns about coconut milk’s effect on cholesterol.
  • Rice. Rice milk is best for those with allergies, but this option has the lowest protein content. It is also higher in carbohydrates since it comes from a grain. Unless you absolutely love the flavor, or are allergic to the others, I think there are better choices available.

Remember, if you exclude dairy you will miss a major source of calcium and vitamin D. So be sure to check the label and choose the fortified dairy-alternative milk products. And remember to steer away from those with added sugars.

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