Walking down the dairy aisle can be overwhelming. With so many options and brands these days, it can be difficult to decide what to add to your cart. Moreover, when it comes to milk and the ever-growing milk alternative category, the varieties seem endless (oat, almond, coconut, rice, hemp, etc.). How do you know which to choose?
1. DO YOU NEED THE DAIRY ALTERNATIVE?
To start, it’s important to clarify that real dairy, we’re talking cow’s milk, is not an unhealthy choice. In fact, most of the time it offers far more protein, calcium, and vitamin D with fewer processed ingredients than most milk alternatives. However, for those with food allergies or intolerances, dietary restrictions, certain medical conditions, or other personal beliefs, milk alternatives can be a good option.
2. HOW MUCH MILK DO YOU DRINK?
The key to choosing a product that works for you is by first examining how you’re consuming it on a daily basis. If it’s just a splash in your morning coffee, what you choose won’t necessarily make a huge difference in your health. On the other hand, if you’re having a cup or more per day in cereal, a latte, smoothie, or just by the glass, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s in there.
3. BE MINDFUL OF FOOD ADDITIVES
Generally speaking, opting for a simple ingredients list is always best. That being said, many popular milk alternatives have quite a bit of additives that assist with consistency, texture, and shelf life. Some of these ingredients, like gums and carrageenan, have been shown to contribute to symptoms like bloating, gas, and gastrointestinal inflammation (though the research is still limited on humans) . If you’re sensitive, it may be best to opt for a product without these additives.
4. CHECK OUT THE SUGAR CONTENT
Next, you’ll want to examine the sugar content. Because cow’s milk has naturally occurring sugars in it, the taste is much more palatable than most nut, seed, or grain versions. This is why there’s typically a good amount of added sugar in most milk alternatives. If possible, opt for the unsweetened versions to avoid that morning sugar high. Also it’s worth noting that oat milk typically contains more carbohydrate than other varieties, so if you’re trying to manage or lower your blood sugar, opting for a lower-carb alternative (like nut milk) may be beneficial. But, if you’re allergic to nuts or soy, oat milk can be a better choice for you.
5. LOOK FOR NUTRIENT CONTENT
Finally, let’s talk about nutrient content. If you’re looking to increase the protein content in your diet, most oat, nut, rice, and seed milks offer very little. Some brands are now offering fortified versions with plant proteins like pea or hemp. Alternatively, soy milk is a complete protein, which offers nearly as much protein as cow’s milk (~7 g per 8 oz. glass). In terms of micronutrients, many milk alternatives are typically fortified with vitamin D, calcium, and/or vitamin B12. But again, in order to reap the benefits of these nutrients, you’d want to consume ~8 oz daily.
With so many options available, it’s best to individualize your choice based on personal health/diet needs, taste preferences, accessibility, and affordability. Feeling adventurous? Try a different milk alternative the next time you’re ordering a coffee or better yet, pick up a shelf-stable carton (usually found in your grocery store’s inner aisles) to have on hand at home next time you’re in need of an overnight oats booster.