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Milk Alternatives: Choosing the right one for you

Learn the key differences between cow’s milk and its dairy-free alternatives.

Lactose-free, dairy-free, plant-based — these are all labels you might find on beverages meant to replace cow’s milk. And with the demand for these products on the rise — especially for people with dairy or lactose intolerances and anyone trying to include more plant-based foods in their diet — making the best choice can be daunting and tricky.

Is almond milk giving you enough protein? Is there vitamin D in coconut milk? Is soy a healthy option, and what on earth is pea milk? These are just a few questions Hy-Vee registered dietitians are answering for inquiring shoppers. To help you decide what’s best for you, here’s a look at the major differences among some popular options.

Cow’s Milk

At 8 grams per cup, this option provides a high-quality protein without added thickeners. It’s also a rich source of calcium and is fortified with vitamin D. Furthermore, grass-fed cow’s milk may offer heart-healthy omega-3s. However, because lactose is the main sugar in cow’s milk, it may not be suitable for someone who is lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy.

Almond Milk

A mixture of water and ground almonds, unsweetened versions of almond milk are often lower in calories and carbohydrates than cow’s milk, plus they contain a small amount of good-for-you monounsaturated fat and vitamin E. Most are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and are lactose-free, non-dairy, and suitable for vegan diets. However, almond milk lacks protein, containing only about 1 gram per cup. It’s also not suitable for people with nut allergies.

Soy Milk

With soy milk, you get a natural boost of protein — around 8 grams per cup. Plus, it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D and contains iron and other nutrients. It’s a good substitute for anyone allergic to dairy or who is lactose intolerant, but it’s not suitable for someone with soy allergies.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is a good option if you have dairy, nut, or soy allergies. Look for brands that are enriched with calcium, vitamin D, and B12. But keep in mind that rice milk lacks protein, containing only 1 gram per cup. It’s also higher in sugar than cow’s milk and other milk alternatives, so be on the lookout for lower-sugar varieties.

Coconut Milk

This coconut-flavored milk alternative is dairy-free and lactose-free. The milk itself is also soy- and nut-free, but it may be produced in a factory that processes these things. Check the label carefully if you have allergies. While the type of saturated fat in coconut milk is a medium chain fatty acid that’s easier to digest than other saturated fats, it should still be consumed in moderation. Look for brands that are enriched with calcium, vitamin D, B12 and are unsweetened or low in sugar. Also keep in mind that it lacks protein.

Pea Protein Milk

Milk made with pea protein is perhaps the newest trend. Bolthouse Farms® Plant Protein Milk is a new milk that is vegan, non-GMO and does not contain common allergens and intolerances like dairy, nuts, soy, lactose and gluten. It also contains 10 grams of protein per serving, has 50 percent more calcium than cow’s milk, is an excellent source of vitamin D, and is fortified with B12, a nutrient that can be hard to get if eating a plant-based diet.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when standing in the milk aisle, especially if you have special dietary considerations or allergies. Just remember, a registered dietitian can help you find the best possible fit for you and your family.

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