Some people have pretty compelling arguments against drinking milk. And while it’s true that we are the only species to drink the milk of another species—we are also the only species that cooks its food and can open a bottle of red wine (should we give that up too?). Truth be told, there are a number of persuasive reasons to wean oneself from cow milk—find out here if you should stop drinking milk, and read about non-dairy alternatives.
Personally, I’ve hopped on and off the milk-drinking fence so many times I am not sure which side I’m on. But a few things are sure: If you are vegan, lactose intolerant, or have a milk allergy, you probably use milk alternatives. Some might also switch to milk alternatives for taste, or to lower their saturated fat intake (although skim cow’s milk is non-fat, some find milk alternatives are a better tasting way to avoid saturated fat). I would convert, once and for all, to non-dairy milk if I couldn’t get milk from rBGH-free cows.
The Vegan Case
Animal rights proponents point to the cruelty inherent in industrial farming. The animals are treated terribly and the milk can be quite unhealthy. (See Easy Greening: Cow Milk). In addition, there are serious environmental problems that dairy farms create. The dairy-products industry is the primary source of smog-forming pollutants in California; a single cow emits more of these harmful gases than a car does. The last common argument for a dairy free life is that cow’s milk is made for cows. We are the only mammal that drinks the milk of another mammal—and we were just not meant to do that, as evidenced by our inadequate lactase production.
Intolerance and Allergies
Lactase is the enzyme produced in our small intestine that breaks down lactose, the natural sugar in any milk. In toddler-hood we begin producing less lactase. It is the reduction of lactase that leads to lactose intolerance—which is the inability to properly digest milk. Millions of Americans are lactose intolerant, and an estimated 90 percent of Asian-Americans and 75 percent of Native- and African-Americans suffer from the condition. Lactose intolerance can cause bloating, gas, cramps, vomiting, headaches, rashes, and asthma. Having a milk allergy is different: in this case the body has an allergic reaction to one or more of the proteins in milk (casein, whey, and lactalbumin). Milk allergies can incite gastric distress, as well as skin problems like rashes and eczema, and runny noses or nasal congestion.
The Calcium Issue
But if we require so much calcium, it might seem that our bodies really do need milk. Well. According to an authoritative article in the British newspaper The Guardian, Anne Karpf exhaustively explores the problems with milk. Here is just one fascinating fact she doles out: “American women are among the biggest consumers of calcium in the world, yet still have one of the highest levels of osteoporosis in the world…Most Chinese people eat and drink no dairy products and consume only half the calcium of Americans…yet osteoporosis is uncommon in China despite an average life expectancy of 70.” She goes on to propose that the bone loss and deteriorating bone tissue that take place in osteoporosis are due not to calcium deficiency but rather to its resorption: it’s not that our bodies don’t get enough calcium, rather that they excrete too much of what they already have. Is our need for calcium from dairy just a very deep-seated myth? Okay, I am grappling with this one. We have been programmed since childhood to believe in the necessity of milk and calcium, but those statistics are hard to ignore.
With all of that in mind, here’s a quick round up of the alternatives. One of the reasons that milk is so popular is because it’s an excellent source of fortified (added) calcium, B12, riboflavin, and vitamin D. (As well as a very strong dairy industry and their lobbying arms.) Milk alternatives won’t automatically contain those ingredients, so be sure to look for a brand that is fortified.
Read the Labels
Also, when selecting a milk alternative be sure to compare nutritional labels. You’ll be amazed by the amount of sugar some of these products have. One popular brand of soy milk rang in with a dizzying 19 grams of sugar per serving: that’s the equivalent of almost five teaspoons of sugar!
With only 2 grams of protein per 8 ounces, almond milk is not that impressive in the protein department—but almonds are one of the healthiest foods around. They’re rich in magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium, and calcium. Almond milk has a nice sweet, nutty flavor and a good consistency, which makes it good for drinking as well as a good dairy substitute in cooking.
A personal favorite: Hemp milk is new to the market and is made from seeds grown in Canada, where growing hemp is legal. It is a good source of omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids, calcium, and phosphorous, and is commonly fortified with other vitamins and minerals. One (very delicious) brand, Living Harvest, states that unlike soy protein, hemp protein doesn’t contain high levels of enzyme inhibitors, phytates, which can interfere with the proper assimilation of essential minerals, or oligosaccharides which cause flatulence and stomach distress.
Oat milk is gaining in popularity and availability. It is high in fiber, is cholesterol and lactose free, and contains vitamin E, folic acid, and other trace elements and minerals. Oats are also rich in phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemicals in plants that help fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. It is said to be highly tolerated by people with multiple allergies—however it’s not good for people with gluten intolerance.
Rice milk is processed from brown rice and typically contains rice syrup, evaporated cane juice or another natural sweetener. It is usually fortified with calcium or vitamin D. It is generally very sweet, and pretty watery. The main drawback of rice milk is that it is mainly just a source of carbohydrates—it is a good dairy substitute for cooking, but shouldn’t be used as a replacement for nutrients.
There was a time when soy was considered nothing short of a miracle bean. But times have changed. The preponderance of GMO strains drifting into soy fields is alarming (it is estimated that 90 percent of soy is genetically modified), and people are increasingly acquiring quite serious allergies to soy. If you drink a lot of soy milk, you might want to read the arguments about possible health issues associated with soy. Dr. Kaayle Daniel, author of the book The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Health Food says: “Soy isoflavones–the plant estrogens in soy most often credited with cancer prevention–are listed as carcinogens in many toxicology textbooks. They have also been proven to be mutagenic, clastogenic and teratogenic.” Excessive soy intake has also been linked to an increased risk of thyroid disease, and some feel that soy’s phytoestrogens may attenuate testosterone levels in boys. The jury may still be out on soy, but the bottom line might just be that soy milk is significantly more processed than the other milk alternatives.
Not-Milk Milk Recipes
Milk alternatives are surprisingly easy to make at home. See our collection of simple, delicious, and quick nut, seed, and grain milk recipes.
By Melissa Breyer, Producer, Care2 Green Living.