Alternative Milks...Smart or Nutty?
It’s totally commonplace in our current world to hear conflicting details about nutrition and what is really healthy for us. Dairy and milk is a huge hot topic when it comes to health and wellness. Many believe that our bodies are not meant for dairy, while others maintain that humans have the resourcefulness to utilize this supreme nutrient source. I am not going to fully get into my opinion here as this isn't my intention with this message. What I do want to discuss is the alternate milk business. For those who maybe can’t tolerate cow’s/sheep/goat milks, a huge industry has grown to mammoth levels - non-dairy milk “substitutes”. Let’s discuss:
The supermarket cooler shelves are LOADED with these, often beautifully packaged, beverages - Soy, Almond, Cashew, Hemp, Macadamia, Flax, Rice, Oat - you name a nut or grain and I bet you can find a “milk” made from it. Such foods are often touted as "superfoods" so, these uber-healthy ingredients blended to make a drink that can be utilized instead of dairy must also be a nutritional win win, right? Sadly - no. Well, no, sometimes.
Here’s the thing: cow’s milk is nutrient dense - containing 9 essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and potassium. Argue the merits of humans consuming it all day, but when you analyze the nutrient components of dairy milk, the proof is in the (hopefully chocolate) pudding. These nut milks are often touted as being nutritionally equivalent or even superior to dairy milk. The problem is that, unlike dairy, these “milks” are often very low in calories and protein and are fortified with synthetic, often poorly absorbable forms, of vitamins/minerals - aka, humans are adding in nutrients instead of them being innately found in the product.
Well hey, you might say that sounds great: I can have my alternative milk and continue to meet my nutritional needs. Yeeeaah, but, these are often not the best forms of nutrients and they can come with a price if consumed frequently. Let’s take calcium for example. Not all calciums are created equal. Our bodies do different things with different forms of this crucial mineral. We utilize calcium not only for bone density, but also for muscle contraction, proper heartbeat and even proper blood clotting. Now, our bodies do best with nutrients found in foods innately - meaning our body knows what to do with real, whole foods. We tend to uptake nutrients quite differently between foods and vitamin supplements from the grocery store. Very few supplements are created the way that calcium, for example, is found in nature. This is a problem because our bodies do not absorb and utilize certain calciums the same way as others.
Did you know that most calcium supplements are derived from literal rocks? Limestone is a huge source of many minerals, so it makes financial sense for many supplement companies to utilize this form of very cheap calcium for supplements, hoping that the public believes that all calcium is the same. Nay, frickin, nay. Calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, tricalcium phosphate - these are all very commonly used in dietary supplements - that’s also the main ingredient in antacid chewables - and - sidewalk chalk. These calciums can cause a rapid rise in serum (blood) calcium levels. They are not very absorbable to bone, causing your density to not be affected nearly at all. What they can do though during this rapid rise in calcium levels in your blood is stick to plaque formations already in your arteries and greatly elevate your risk for a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or stroke. YIKES. Consume these supplements on a regular basis and you are potentially putting yourself at true risk. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5121484/
Guess what? These forms of calcium are the same that are used in these alternative milks to create a proposed “nutritional equivalency” to cow’s milk. The problem here is that your body can more readily utilize the calcium from cow’s milk, whereas, this isn’t the case with the calciums derived from stone.
There is good news though! While the vast majority of alternative milks utilize these undesired forms of nutrients, there are some companies out there that just offer nut/seed/grain “milks” without these nutrients. They can be hard to find, but we have compiled some companies to look for if you are looking for these foods such as: The New Barn, Malk and Elmhurst products.
One thing that I will say is to remember that alternative nut milks will never replace the nutrition available in cow’s milk. You may not want dairy and that is A-Okay with me, but when thinking about these “milks” as a true replacement for dairy, it’s just not the same. Children from the ages of 1-2 years old are often recommended to have whole milk daily to help to meet protein and fat needs for their growing nervous systems. Most nut or alt milks are mostly water, very little almonds and full of thickeners, additive nutrients and mouthfeel agents to make it more creamy - These foods are not nutritionally equivalent to replace the protein/fat from dairy. If you want keep your little one off of dairy, it would be advantageous for you to find another way to meet their protein/fat needs. In fact, we are potentially dealing with this with our little guy right now - he just doesn’t seem to be tolerating dairy well and it’s becoming more evident that we will need to start sourcing some alternate nutrient dense foods for him in replacement of his beloved dairy.
I could go on and on - this is one of my favorite topics. But...I’ll stop here. I just want you to remember and maybe plant a seed of thought in your heads that just because something is trendy or sounds healthy, doesn’t mean that it really is. These “milks” can be a nice beverage to enjoy here and there, but not as a nutritionally dense food. Unless you purchase almonds and make your own “milk”, then it’s just going to be the way the nut falls from the tree.