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Milk Alternatives. Healthy or Not? Here’s Your Answer.

We no longer need to milk a cow to get our daily milk fix. If you're ready to ditch the dairy, how healthy are the milk alternatives? Here's your answer.

We no longer need to milk a cow to get our daily milk fix, but if you’re ready to ditch the dairy, you may wonder what are the milk alternatives, and how healthy are they?

The short answer is yes—and no, depending on two factors: if you bought the milk alternative from the store or made it from scratch at home. The latter, as you’d likely imagine, is preferred (read on to find out exactly why).

Nut, seed, grain and legume milks can now be found pre-packaged on supermarket shelves, but knowing the nutritious from the health-hyped goes beyond reading ingredient labels.

While cows may be resting little easier in the wake of a new-found love of milk alternatives, there’s good reason to make your own say some of the country’s leading dieticians and nutritionists.

The Problem with Store-Bought Milk Alternatives

From sugar-loaded Ultra Heat Treated (UHT) varieties to made-from-concentrates, there are often more than simply nuts, seeds, legumes and grains in store-bought milk alternatives, says accredited practising dietician and FoodTalk.com.au nutritionist Trudy Williams.

“If the second or third ingredient in your milk is added sweetener in the form of raw sugar, cane sugar or rice syrup, would you think it was healthy or flavoured?” Williams asks. “How about the addition of limestone in your milk? Is ground limestone an intentional and natural food for humans? These are some of the unusual features of some almond milks—one of the many types of long-life milk substitutes available in the supermarket.”

From almond, rice and oat to quinoa, soy, coconut and hemp, today’s selection of plant-based milks has given those with dairy allergies a welcome reprieve from phlegm build-up and skin issues, however, it’s not plain health sailing simply because a milk product comes without hormones and antibiotics.

Once refined to kitchens of raw food aficionados, nut, seed, legume and grain milk alternatives have hit the mainstream in a big way, appearing on supermarket shelves nationwide with labels emblazoned with “all natural” and images to match, yet, according to author, nutritionist and Changing Habits founder, Cyndi O’Meara, there’s reason for concern every time we reach for our morning milk alternative.

How about the addition of limestone in your milk? Is ground limestone an intentional and natural food for humans? These are some of the unusual features of some almond milks—one of the many types of long-life milk substitutes available in the supermarket.

“The Western world has been besieged by dairy intolerances due to the quality of our milk, the health of our cows, the food and medications given to our cows and the processing done to our milk: pasteurisation, homogenisation, adding of milk protein isolates, permeates, calcium sourced from rock and coral or other means where we cannot utilise the calcium as well as other dubious processes and ingredients have caused this,” O’Meara says. “As a result non-animal milks have become an in-vogue and healthy alternative—or have they?”

The nutritionist says with the popularity of plant-based milks, many companies that make their product in Tetra packs may use “dubious ingredients” to thicken, taste or sweeten the original milk for flavour and profit.

“So, I have a caveat on whether I believe plant-based milks are healthy,” O’Meara says. “It all depends on the ingredients of the milk… Check the ingredient panel—the fewer ingredients the better—and make sure all ingredients are real. If there are any additives that you are not sure of, do some research.”

Check the ingredient panel—the fewer ingredients the better—and make sure all ingredients are real. If there are any additives that you are not sure of, do some research.

A Guide to Plant-based Milks

Milk alternatives from coconut and oat to soy and almond.

Almond

From the store: The second or third ingredient in popular almond milk alternatives is usually a form of sugar. Manufacturers also often add ground limestone. “With up to seven ingredients listed, almond milk is hardly a natural product,” says Trudy Williams. “Whole almonds are a reasonable source of protein and are touted to be a good calcium source, but when almonds only make up two percent of the milk, they no longer contribute much at all to the milk except a hint of flavour… Almond milk is typically low in protein and low in calcium compared with cows milk unless fortified with ground limestone or another calcium source.”

Make your own: Buying organic or transitional almonds is the healthiest option, as conventional almonds may be pasteurised and contain pesticides.

  1. Place approximately two handfuls of almonds into a glass bowl and soak overnight in enough water to cover the almonds. Empty the water every few hours and rinse, adding more soaking water after each rinse.
  2. Add one cup of water per handful of almonds—or more depending on the consistency you prefer—into a high-speed blender with the soaked almonds.
  3. Blend almonds and water for approximately two minutes.
  4. Drain milk through a nut bag or sieve to separate from pulp.
  5. If you prefer sweeter milk, simply add dates to the blending process.

Oat

From the store: “Without the deliberate addition of calcium, oat milks are also a poor source of calcium,” says Williams. “Some oat milks contain added oat bran fibre (beta-glucan), which may help lower blood cholesterol levels. Both oat and rice milk alternatives tend to contain more carbohydrate per serve than cow’s milk. If you’re switching to oat milk because you have a sensitive tummy, you may be disappointed because some varieties declare the addition of inulin, which is a no-go for people with FODMAP (a short chain carbohydrate sensitivity) problems.”

Make your own:

  • 1 cup steel-cut oats
  • 3 cups filtered water
  • 3 dates, pitted
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp fine grain sea salt
  1. Place the oats in a large bowl and pour enough water to cover. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Drain and place in blender.
  2. Add 3 cups of water and dates. Process until the oats have broken down into liquid. You may add more water if a thinner milk is desired, or less for a slightly thicker consistency.
  3. Strain through a cheesecloth or sieve.

Soy

From the store: The controversy surrounding this green legume also extends to its milk, which was one of the first cow milk alternatives to appear on supermarket shelves. As a favoured crop of GMO seed supplier Monsanto and the farmers who grow it, soy has been linked to a host of health issues that may affect the thyroid and hormones. “I’m always a little wary of this milk due to the fact that most Western companies do not know how to prepare it properly,” says Cyndi O’Meara. “Soy is best fermented and then made into a milk. True soymilk is very bland and woody tasting; therefore to appease the Western taste bud, flavours, sweeteners, oils and thickeners are often added. Soy is not good in great amounts due to the phytoestrogenic effects of the plant.”

Make your own:

  1. Rinse, drain, and soak dried soy beans in six cups of water for 10 hours. Rinse and drain again.
  2. Transfer beans into a blender or food processor with 1 cup of water. Blend until thick and creamy.
  3. Transfer puree and two cups water into a large pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until almost to boil.
  4. Pour the mixture into a sieve (to separate pulp from liquid).
  5. Press the contents against the strainer with a large spoon or pestle, squeezing milk into a large bowl.
  6. Place soymilk in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer gently for 7 minutes

Rice

From the store: “Rice milk is essentially just sugar and water, so is best avoided,” says naturopath and W8less founder Kate Troup. “Flavoured (rice) milk alternatives are often highly sweetened; one popular American brand of chocolate rice milk contact five and a half teaspoons of sugar in each serve! It’s common to find unhealthy vegetable oils, preservatives, flavourings and colourings as ingredients so always check the label… Just because it’s from the health food aisle does not guarantee that it’s healthy.”

Make your own:

  • 3/4 cup brown rice
  • 7 1/2 cups of water, divided
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  1. In a saucepan, bring rice and 3 cups of water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, adding water if the pan dries out.
  2. When rice is soft, remove from heat and add 4 1/2 more cups of water and the vanilla. Stir, then let sit for an additional 45 minutes.
  3. Transfer soaking rice to a blender or food processor to mix for 3-4 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve or cheese cloth into a mason jar or pitcher, and enjoy for 4-5 days.

(recipe courtesy: happyolks.com)

Quinoa

From the store: “Quinoa milk is new to the UHT milk aisle,” says Trudy Williams. “Gluten free, lactose free and nut free, this new milk might be—but quinoa milk is sadly lacking in calcium, Vitamin D and protein.”

Make your own:

• 1 cup uncooked quinoa
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• Pinch of salt

  1. Soak quinoa overnight in 2 cups of water. Before cooking, drain through a sieve and rinse until water runs clear.
  2. To cook, bring another 2 cups of water to a boil. Add quinoa and bring to a second boil, then cover and simmer on low for 15 minutes. When done, fluff quinoa with a fork.
  3. Place 1/2 of the cooked quinoa into a blender with 2 cups of filtered/purified water. Blend on high for 1-3 minutes until smooth. (Use the other half toward other meals over the week).
  4. Pour milk into nut milk bag or through cheesecloth while holding over a bowl or large jug. The milk will strain through slowly on its own, but you can gently squeeze and massage the bottom of the bag to speed up the process.
  5. Put strained milk back into the blender and add water (about 1 cup at a time) to your desired consistency, blending the mixture after each addition. I like mine a medium consistency so it has body but isn’t too thick with about 2 more cups of added water. Add vanilla extract, salt and any other flavorings, if using. Note: You shouldn’t plan to keep it longer than 3-5 days, so drink up!

(recipe courtesy anunprocessedlife.com)

Coconut

From the store: Rather than milk straight from the nut, coconut milk from the supermarket long life milk aisle is watered down and mixed with various ingredients including sunflower oil, brown rice, salt and guar gum. “This is not the coconut milk or cream used in Asian cooking, rather a drink positioned beside UHT cow’s milk,” Williams explains. “A non-dairy beverage that’s 20 per cent coconut milk, with barely any protein and not a hint of calcium present, coconut milk beverage is a poor nutritional alternative to dairy milk.”

Make your own:

Instructions

  1. Heat water, but don’t boil. It should be hot, but not scalding.
  2. Put coconut in blender or Vitamix and add water. (If all water won’t fit, you can add the water in two batches.)
  3. Blend on high for several minutes until thick and creamy.
  4. Pour through a mesh colander first to get most of the coconut out, and then squeeze through a towel or several thicknesses of cheesecloth to get remaining pieces of coconut out.
  5. If you have to split the water, put all the coconut that you strained out back in the blender, add the remaining water, and repeat.
  6. Flavour options: add in after all coconut has been strained out: ½ tsp vanilla extract, ½ cup fresh or frozen strawberries, 2 tsp cocoa powder and ½ tsp vanilla.
  7. Drink immediately or store in the fridge. Should be used in 3-4 days after making for best flavour and texture. Since there are no preservatives or fillers, the “cream” of the coconut milk may separate on the top if stored in the fridge. Just shake or stir before using.

(recipe courtesy wellnessmama.com)

Healthy or Not? A Guide to Milk Alternatives by Shannon Dunn originally appeared in Australian Natural Health magazine

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