Milk and dairy in the western world has always come from an animal--cow, goat or sheep. Dairy is known for it's excellent protein and high vitamin and mineral content. However, the Chinese have consumed soy milk, a plant-based beverage since AD 82. It's an extract from the soybeans, a complete protein and is most similar to the nutritional content of cow's milk. Europe, the UK and the US were introduced to it in the late 1800s. The Japanese bottled it in the 1950s. In the US, the first soy milk boom started in the 1980s. Then, soy milk was sold in aseptic cartons mostly in natural food stores. Today, these plant-based dairy alternatives are found in every supermarket, both fresh in the dairy case and shelf-stable in the aisles.
Besides soy milk, what about all the other non-dairy milk products that have been trending around the globe lately? These include almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, hemp milk, quinoa milk, oat milk, sunflower milk, mixed grain milk, etc. These types are often available plain, unsweetened, sweetened and flavored. Commercial companies typically fortify these beverages with nutrients like extra calcium, vitamins A, D and B12.
Here is my take on the plant-based beverage (aka non-dairy milk) trend:
- Soy milk has the best nutritional profile with an average of 5 to 9 grams of protein per cup. Because soybeans are a genetically modified crop, it's best to buy non-GMO or organic brands.
- Coconut milk is low in protein at 1 gram per cup and high in fat at 5 grams per cup.
- Rice milk has a watery texture and contains 1 to 2 grams of protein per cup but may be good for those with severe food allergies.
- Almond milk, high in vitamin E, has a low protein content averaging 1 gram per cup. The taste is pleasant and the texture is creamy.
- Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds and contains a little more protein than almond milk averaging 2 grams of protein per cup.
- Oat milk averages 4 grams of protein per cup and has a mild flavor.
- Stay away from flavored varieties like vanilla and chocolate, which are high in sugar.
- Choose non-GMO or organic brands and check the nutrition facts panel for protein and vitamin/mineral content.
- Buy brands fortified with extra calcium and vitamins A, D and B12.
- Don't be fooled by marketing words like pure, gluten-free and lactose-free. Plant-based beverages are lactose-free by nature. If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, then be sure the label says gluten-free. As for the words natural, healthy and pure--there are no scientific definitions.
- Non-dairy, plant-based yogurts, ice creams and creamers are also popular products in today's food markets. Check the nutrition facts panel and ingredient label. If there is little nutrition and too many additives, put it back!
According to my book Beyond The Mediterranean Diet, European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, the Swiss have a diet high in good old-fashioned dairy from cows. Yet, they have the 2nd longest lifespan in the world. Japan is number one. Maybe the secret lies in the naturally high omega-3 fatty acid diet of the Swiss cows, which are pastured-fed and never injected with hormones. The types of amino acids that make up the casein portion of milk protein are dependent upon the breed of cow. More ancient breeds of dairy cows have a different type of casein that may be more tolerable to the human digestive system. Bon Appétit!