Arnold Schwarzenegger declared “Milk is for babies” in the classic bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron. In a way, he was right. While still good for kids, it certainly isn’t the staple of the American diet it used to be. Even for athletes. And if you aren’t a child, you probably haven’t had a glass in years.
People trying to lower their fat intake or with lactose intolerance are shaping the marketplace and helping wean Americans from cow’s milk. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our taste for it or our love of milk’s texture or its abilities in food. Whole milk has been replaced in a lot of refrigerators by substitutes that come with their own pluses and minuses. If you’re shopping around, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Almond milk: Its usage goes back to at least the Middle Ages and in 2013 became the most popular plant-based milk. Almond milk has a mildly nutty flavor and is high in fiber, calcium, copper, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, tryptophan and zinc. But it’s also low in protein, so if you want more protein punch from your milk, stick with cow or goat milk.
Try to avoid products with carrageenan used as a thickener. Though kelp-based foods can be quite healthy, carrageenan is inflammatory, so regular or excessive consumption can potentially lead to arteriosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Coconut milk: A milk generated from the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world, and because of its creamy similarity to cow milk, it’s commonly used in a lot of Asian cuisine. It has a mildly sweet coconut flavor and is a good source of iron and phosphorus. But it is far higher in calories and fat than the other plant-based milks, even higher than whole milk from a cow.
It is high in saturated fats, but also medium-chain fatty acids, which the body digests differently that other saturated fats. The MCFAs, according to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2002, might aid in weight maintenance without raising cholesterol.
Goat milk: A common staple of Middle Eastern and Asian diets, its use with infants remains controversial in the United States. However, goat milk and cow milk are nearly identical in most nutritional categories and can be substituted for those with allergies to cow milk.
Hemp milk: Milk made from hemp seeds is perhaps the newest trend in cow milk alternatives. The seeds are soaked and then ground into a creamy and nutty-flavored liquid. Probably the most nutritionally well-rounded of all the cow milk substitutes, hemp milk is low in sugar and high in omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids and has good amounts of ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium, fiber, iron, magnesium, phytosterols, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, niacin and thiamin as well as 10 amino acids. However, it’s low in protein.
OK, here’s the trade-off: The process of making hemp milk can still leave trace amounts of THC on the seed’s shell. While that’s not enough to get anyone high, even The Hemp Food Association says regular consumption or a bit too much at the wrong time is enough to test positive for marijuana on some drug tests. However, the association cites newer methods that can keep this from happening.
Rice milk: A good choice for anyone with lactose, soy or nut allergies, or with phenylketonuria. It’s slightly sweet flavored and also low in fat, but rice milk isn’t nutritionally as strong as hemp or almond in several categories; and it’s also the highest in carbohydrates of all the cow milk alternatives.
Soy milk: This is a tough one. There is a lot of conflicting evidence on the virtues or dangers of soy. For people with soy allergies, stay away from it like any other soy. It’s also currently unclear how much the amount you consume affects you. For men concerned about prostate health or women concerned about breast health, stick with GMO-free soy and the kind with the whole bean. Seek out soy milk with fresh, whole beans and with little or no added sugars from things like brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice. Meanwhile, exercise caution with any processed soy products.
Kefir: (Pronounced ke-FEER) Sort of a milk and yogurt hybrid emanating from the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe, kefir mixes cow, goat, or sheep’s milk with yeast and lactic acid bacteria and ferments the liquid into a slightly alcoholic drink with probiotic qualities and very little lactose. It also retains much of the mineral and vitamin content of milk. However, its exact nutritional qualities can vary widely, so like with all the cow milk alternatives listed, it’s wise to do some label reading and shop around.