Springer and I receive AMAZING questions from you (our readers) – mostly about ingredients and cooking tips, but also about the other side of “healthy,” like how we started a business, tips for feeding kids, or even suggestions for local San Francisco eats (since that’s where we live).
Instead of hoarding the answers, we decided it’s time to open up a blog column where we answer your questions and share our perspective with all of you. Check out this week’s question below all about dairy-free milk alternatives.
When a question pops up for you about eating healthy, improved work-life balance, motivation to get you moving, or anything about our journey to Eat Life Whole, ask us here.
“Which is better nutritionally, coconut milk or almond milk?
What a great question, especially since we’ve been asked that very question around non-dairy alternatives quite often.
If you are allergic to dairy, simply prefer the taste of dairy-free alternatives, or choose to consume less animal-based foods, there are certainly a ton of options to choose from. To expand your question a bit, I’m going to highlight a few dairy-free alternatives beyond almond milk and coconut milk to help you see the comparison.
Consider this first
When selecting a dairy-free milk alternative for the best “nutritional punch,” you have to consider what your health goals are right now. Are you looking for something with more protein because you don’t consume much high-protein foods throughout the day? Are you looking to lose weight or gain weight – which will help you choose a lower or higher calorie-based dairy-free milk? Or are you simply wanting to swap a dairy-free option that would be most comparable to regular milk for baking/cooking or small add-ins like milk for your coffee or cereal?
Four common dairy-free milk alternatives
Take a look below at four common dairy-free alternatives, how they compare taste and nutrition-wise, and lastly, our thoughts on where to go from here.
Taste: Unsweetened almond milk is a low-calorie, dairy-free alternative that many people prefer (taste-wise) over other dairy-free alternatives because it is smooth and mild in flavor.
Nutrition: Although it has few calories per cup, it is not a great source of protein, and most calcium and vitamins are added-in during the processing of the almond milk. Beware that most almond milk brands usually contain “lecithin,” starches and thickeners to help create a traditional milk-like consistency.
Tip: In our upcoming EAT REAL CHALLENGE, launching Feb. 7th 2013, you’ll read-up on how to make almond milk from scratch (without fancy tools) and dive into a few dairy-free recipes during the challenge.
Make it QUICK yourself: Almond milk is quite easy to make at home, but if you are in a rush and need a quick version, simply blend almond butter with coconut water or filtered water.
- low calorie
- low protein
- similar calcium to traditional milk, although it is fortified/added
Taste: Not to be mistaken with the canned coconut milk, the drinkable carton-based coconut milk is smooth, sweet, and has a noticeable coconut flavor.
Nutrition: Similar to almond milk, unsweetened versions are a low-calorie option, but it’s also low in protein AND calcium, which doesn’t make this a nutrient-rich source of what most people think dairy foods should add to their diet.
Tips: Just like almond milk, many coconut milk brands use natural and artificial flavors and starches to simulate what we think of as “traditional milk.” Be sure to shop for coconut milk with minimal ingredients
Make it QUICK Yourself: Simply make a cleaner version by blending 1 cup of unsweetened, dried coconut flakes with 2 cups of boiling water, then strain.
- low calorie
- low protein
- low calcium
Taste: Unsweetened rice milk is a sweet dairy-free alternative that is slightly gritty due to the remnants of rice pulp.
Nutrition: It is one of the “mildest” dairy-free alternatives in terms of allergy reactions, however it is also high in carbs, sugar, calories, and low in protein in comparison to other dairy-free milk alternatives. Similar to almond and coconut milk, many “fillers” and starches are used to thicken the milk and prolong shelf life.
Tip: This isn’t a great source of a nutritional punch, however if you do prefer to experiment with it, be sure to look at the ingredients without loads of sugar.
Make it QUICK Yourself: It’s also something quite easy to make on your own. Boil 1 cup brown rice with 3 cups of water, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon honey. Once the rice is cooked, toss it in a blender with 4 more cups of water. Strain with a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth and store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
- high calorie
- low protein
- low calcium
- high sugar
Taste: Soy milk was a popular one a few years ago, especially at Starbucks with “soy lattes.” It is smooth and has a slight “beany” aftertaste that may seem overpowering when consumed on its own.
Nutrition: Nutritionally, it is similar to traditional milk when it comes to protein and calcium, however “soy” is another food allergen that may not agree with your body. It is also a controversial food where various studies show that soy milk may not be as good for us as we think. An over-consumption of soy phytoestrogens (plant-based hormones) may conflict with our own natural hormones. Lastly, just like other dairy-free alternatives, many soy milk products contain various starches and emulsifiers to extend their shelf life.
Tip: With soybeans being one of the most genetically modified organisms, if you do choose to shop for soy milk, we highly suggest looking for organic, non-gmo brands.
Make it QUICK Yourself: Making traditional homemade soy milk is a slightly longer process because you must soak soybeans overnight. These soybeans are a yellow-tan color and are NOT the same as edamame (the young, green versions we eat at Japanese restaurants). However, since edamame (the green young bean) is slightly more nutritious than the mature version, you can you make a powerhouse edamame soy milk quite easily. Simply add 1 cup of edamame to 3 cups of boiling water and cook for 3 minutes. Pour the cooked beans and water in a blender, and add, 2 cups filtered water or coconut water, and 1 teaspoon ginger. Blend, then strain and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
- low calorie
- high protein
- high calcium
- low in sugar
So when it comes to nutrients, which is the best dairy-free milk alternative?
If you’ve been following us for a while, then you’ll know that we DO NOT promote a specific diet or one way of eating (like vegan, vegetarian, pascatarian, or even paleo). We do however support eating a produce-centric diet, minimally processed, made up of whole, real foods. One thing to consider when purchasing dairy-free milk alternatives, is that most options are highly processed, loaded with sugars, preservatives, and artificial ingredients to enhance flavor and extend shelf life – quite the opposite of whole, real foods.
On top of that, most traditional dairy and dairy-free alternatives contain fortified (enriched) nutrients (like calcium and vitamins) – which means “man and woman” added supplemental vitamins. As a result, we consider milk to be an ingredient that is added to our foods more for flavor than a substantial nutrient source for calcium, protein and vitamins.
According to Dr. Thalia, “As a culture, we did not actually drink animal milk until the early 1900′s when it was touted out to be the best source of calcium. The reality is that the absorbability of calcium from milk products is about 32% whereas the absorbability of calcium from green vegetables like kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts is between 40 and 64%.” Just another reason to UP YOUR GREENS!
How to shop for dairy-free milk alternatives
When looking for dairy-free milk alternatives, try to follow these steps, as best you can:
- Shop the refrigerator section vs. the aisles. Refrigerated dairy-free milk alternatives tend to have a shorter shelf life, which means less artificial ingredients.
- ALWAYS flip the carton over and look at the ingredients. If it’s loaded with words that you can’t pronounce, it’s best to leave it behind. Making your own, might be the better option.
- Choose unsweetened / plain versions. Many dairy-free milk alternatives come in a variety of flavors (especially vanilla), which may mean added artifacial ingredients and color. Be sure to check the nutritional labels for sugar contents as well. Here’s more info on how 4 grams of sugar compares to a teaspoon.
Thanks Toni for asking such asking a great and pertinent question. As you can see, there’s no one solid answer, but the information provided above should lead you to explore an option that best suits your goals and taste buds.