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Not Milk?

November 26th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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Soy, rice, almond, hemp! There are many choices when it comes to milk alternatives and while they may be tasty on cereal, how do they stand up in nutritional analysis? Our experts get to the bottom of the glass.


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Remember this commercial from the 80s? “Milk it does a body, milk it does a body good. Pass it on…” It’s a wonder milk even needed commercials. Growing up, it didn’t seem like we had a choice about whether to drink milk or not. It was one of those mom rules ‘drink your milk.’ But things are changing. According to USDA milk consumption has been declining for a couple decades. In 1994, the average consumer was drinking 24 gallon of milk a year. By 2008 the number was down to 20 gallons.

“There’s a lot of choices in the dairy case.” Althea Zanecosky is a Registered Dietician, she’s also a spokesperson for the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Council. She says, “back 20, 30 years ago, there was milk and there was only milk.” There’s soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, even hemp milk.

“Makes you wonder, how does a grain of rice make milk?” But as Zanecosky points out, these products are technically not milk. “they’re not really called milk technically, because if you’re milk you are supposed to come from a mammal. But, they are used as milk, because many people use them on their breakfast cereals.”

The reasons for people choosing these milk alternatives are varied. There’s allergies or lactose intolerance, people who just don’t like the taste of cow milk, and of course the vegans who have eliminated all dairy and meat from their diet. 30-year-old Randi Fair has been a vegan for 7 years, “and this is Brooks, he’s four and a half.” Standing next to Randi is her son Brooks, “he’s never had meat or dairy except when he was nursing of course. His pediatrician is fine with it, he’s tall for his age, all his charts and everything is fine. He’s a pretty normal kid, except he just doesn’t eat certain things.”

He does drink a rotation of the “other” milks. “We drink soy milk and rice milk and almond, and he really likes coconut milk.” But what about the other things in cow milk that we’re told are good for growing children?

I went to Tara Berman, a pediatrician at Thomas Jefferson University, “there are very health ways to be a child growing up vegan, and staying away from dairy and meat products. But it is important to be knowledgable about your child’s diet and to read labels when it comes to buying non-dairy products. To make sure they are getting enough of those important elements for a child’s growth.”

Fat and protein are really important to a child’s development. In the fat category, cow’s milk clocks in at 8 grams per serving, with soy a not close second at 3.5 grams of fat per serving.
As for protein similar story. Milk, 8 grams, Soy, 6 grams. Cow’s milk is also cheaper than the rest, by almost a dollar for a half gallon. So basically, it seems like these alternative “milks” make good dairy free companions for a bowl of cereal, but as for a nutritional replacement for milk, maybe not.

This doesn’t mean children need to drink cows milk, it only means if they don’t, the parent has to make sure their kids are getting the necessary fat, proteins, and vitamins though other foods. Randi Fair is readily armed with an answer to the inevitable question that get’s tossed to a vegan mom. How does her son get enough protein?

“Protein’s really easy, almost everything has protein in it, even a potato has like 2% protein. So, some examples are beans, nuts, legumes, lentils. As long as your diet is varied, protein isn’t an issue at all.”

Photo by Flicker user Kiki Tohmé / CC BY-NC 2.0

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