Cow's milk may be the ideal beverage for baby cows, but it just doesn't sit well with some Americans. Dairy allergies, lactose intolerance and an interest in healthier beverages have all sparked a proliferation of alternative milk products.
The new "milks," however, are milk only in name. Most come from nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. They don't taste like cow's milk and usually have less protein.
The benefits? With the exception of goat milk, they are free of lactose and casein, the protein that causes an allergic reaction for some. In most cases, alternative "milks" have less sugar, cholesterol, fat and calories than whole milk. Nearly all are "fortified or enriched to contain the nutrients to make them comparable to cow's milk," said Orlando registered dietitian Tara Gidus, a spokeswoman for the National Dietetic Association. And most can be stored, unopened, for a year without losing flavor or nutritional value.
Still, if you can't give up the flavor of real milk but are one of the approximately 30 million to 50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant, there's another option: Lactaid, or milk that has had the lactose (milk sugar) removed.
We've listed some pros and cons of some milklike beverages, which should never be used as a replacement for breast milk or infant formula. And always check labels, because brands vary.
Strengths: The most protein-rich nondairy milk; 1 cup contains 30mg of isoflavones, a phytoestrogen that may play a role in lowering disease. More omega-3 fatty acids than 2 percent milk. Most, but not all, are fortified with calcium, riboflavin and vitamins A, D and B12.
Weaknesses: Soy is so prevalent today that we're seeing a soy minibacklash. Studies on the effect of isoflavones and cancer risk are mixed.
Strengths: Low in fat; half the calories of 2 percent milk, rice and soy drinks. Contains vitamins A, D and E, and is free of lactose, a milk protein called casein, cholesterol and gluten. Offers "the health halo of nuts," meaning it has some health benefits of almonds, said Kara Nielsen, a trend analyst with the Center for Culinary Development.
Weaknesses: Eating whole almonds gives you more health benefits, said Gidus, also the team dietitian for the Orlando Magic. Just 1 gram of protein per 8-ounce serving, compared with the 8 grams in all varieties of cow's milk. Not an option for those with tree-nut allergies.
Strengths: Contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Also has magnesium and manganese. Enriched with calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D, riboflavin and folic acid.
Weaknesses: The hallucinogenic reputation of hemp. Eating products made from the hemp nut will not — we repeat, will not — result in a positive drug test for marijuana. About half the protein (4 grams) of all varieties of cow's milk per 8-ounce serving. Separates in coffee.
Strengths: Easy to digest, low in fat and enriched with calcium and vitamins A, D, B12. Lactose-, dairy-, soy- and cholesterol-free.
Weaknesses: Higher in carbs; just 1 gram of protein per serving. Some don't like the watery consistency.
Strengths: A complete protein with essential amino acids, it's easy to digest and often suitable for those with lactose intolerance. Contains fatty acids. Has 15 percent more calcium and more vitamin A and D, potassium, copper and manganese than cow's milk. Goats are not treated with growth hormone.
Weaknesses: Has less folic acid and vitamin B12 than cow's milk; also a little less zinc. People still think goat milk will taste "goaty." Actually, it's similar to cow's milk.