The Skinny on Alternative Milks

Milk used to be so simple. All you had to do was select either a fat content or skim, and voila, done. Today, a dizzying array of alternative options awaits shoppers, ranging from soy and flax to almond and hemp. We asked Harrison-based nutritionist Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, CDN, to demystify this new wave of dairy replacements and explain just why reaching for that carton of 2 percent might not be the best course of action.

“Some people think cow’s milk is bad because it is difficult to digest,” says Schapiro. “There has also been research recently that it may not protect bones the way we have been taught to believe. Some varieties also contain hormones, which people are weary of.”

Instead, Schapiro points toward a number of plant-based choices that have been appearing on store shelves with increasing frequency. “Soy milk is a good source of protein and has the highest amount compared to other plant-based milks,” Schapiro advises. “Almond milk, rice milk, and flax milk tend to be lower in protein but have other benefits; they can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D and low in saturated fat and cholesterol.”

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Schapiro notes that flax milk boasts the added benefit of containing omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital to proper functioning of the body and have been linked to brain health. “Hemp milk is also a great alternative to cows’ milk,” remarks Schapiro. “It’s rich in many vitamins and minerals and also in omega-3s.”

This does not mean, however, that all plant-based varieties are beneficial. “Many of these plant-based milks come in flavored forms that have loads of sugar and artificial additives,” she points out. “Even the deceptively innocent ‘original’ or ‘plain’ versions can contain added sugars.” Schapiro suggests shoppers look closely at the ingredients and nutrition panel and select only unsweetened varieties.

Soy milk is also often warned against for its high phytoestrogen content—a known endocrine disruptor. For Schapiro, whether to consume soy depends largely on the individual, though she does recommend that those with a family or personal history of breast cancer may want to avoid it.

In the end, Schapiro concludes that, “For those who are looking to avoid cow’s milk, alternative milks are a great option,” which is certainly something to moo about. 


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