If you’re not accustomed to milk other than what comes from cows you might be bewildered by the varieties of milk that come from soy, rice, almonds and other plant-based foods.
Americans are consuming less cow’s milk and more alternatives, which aren’t milk in the traditional sense anyway.
Cow’s milk consumption dropped 25 percent from 1975 to 2012, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, alternatives made from soy, almond, and rice have averaged an annual sales growth of 10.9 percent since 1999, according to the marketing research firm Euromonitor.
“The non-dairy category has also surged to more than $1 billion in annual retail sales in the U.S.,” according to a Time magazine report.
Are the changes a matter of health? It depends on your diet. The fact is, you don’t have to drink milk to achieve good nutrition.
Milk alternatives have picked up steam because they are popular with vegans, people with dairy allergies, and those who are lactose intolerance.
The advantages of cow’s milk, as has been made clear in two decades of ads featuring two words, “got milk,” is that it’s high in calcium, has muscle-strengthening protein, phosphorus, and vitamin D.
The cons, says a Consumer’s Reports guide, are that it has some saturated fat, contains lactose, and could cause allergies.
Every milk alternative has a disadvantage of some kind. Almond milk is low in protein, and some brands are slightly sweetened with sugar. Coconut milk has zero protein, saturated fat, and almost no flavor at all depending on the brand. Hemp milk has a flavor that is, at best, acquiredm and rice milk tested by Consumer Reports had detectable levels of arsenic.
So, it all may be less of a health factor than a lifestyle preference, which is what got plant-based “milk” going in the first place.
You can get plenty of calcium from leafy green vegetables and protein from a variety of other foods. You might like the taste of almond milk, but since it’s just crushed almonds diluted by water, you could just eat the nuts themselves instead.
The Chinese have consumed non-dairy milk for eons.
“There's no evidence that your health will suffer if you stop drinking (milk) — as long as you're getting enough calcium and vitamin D from other food sources,” says the Huffington Post.
In fact, you may be healthier overall if you follow the widespread advice to consume up to a gallon of water per day, which most people fail to do.
If some cultures hadn’t consumed non-dairy milks for centuries, it could almost be called a fad.
The more “powerful factor driving the popularity of milk substitutes” is a consumer group that Sandy Krueger, executive and practice leader at IRI Worldwide, a Chicago-based market research firm, calls the “healthy chic” in The Washington Post.
These are “people who look at labels and are drawn to new products with attributes that promise to improve health and wellness,” Krueger says. “There’s a sort of ‘health halo’” to plant-based milks, Krueger adds. “There’s a general perception that they’re healthier than cow’s milk, and taste better.”
In addition, the nutrition each milk substitute offers is so varied, it’s comes down to different products and their nutrients attracting people with different health priorities.
In general, more choices are always good as long you’re informed. The nutrients you don’t get from some plant-based “milks” just have to be provided by another aspect of your diet. It’s all about knowing your diet, what you’re consuming, and what portion is coming from each source.
Janet O’Dell, RN