When you walk through the supermarket, there are two ways to tell that the Healthcare Industrial Complex (HIC) is onto a new money-making trend. There’s the “sprinkle” method in which they distribute remarkable health claims and features about their products throughout the store. That’s when you see (almost meaningless) labels like these in every aisle from gluten-free soup to nut-free nuts.
Then there’s the “cluster” method. That’s when you see an entire aisle with multiple shelves of some product that until recently, barely existed. The latest target for this kind of clusterf*ck is alternative milk. The picture at the top of this post is an example from my local Whole Foods.
But I’ll see the same thing at Wegmans, Safeway, Albertsons, Publix, Carrefour, or Ralphs. Several contingencies within the “Health” Lifestyle Militia (“The Militia”) are attacking dairy products and the HIC is more than happy to sell to the new demand. But is cow’s milk really that bad? Are these milk alternatives really better? Read this post to find out. But first…
Is Milk A Natural?
This American Dairy Association (a full-fledged member of the HIC <seriously, their fledge is totally at capacity>) told us it was for many years.
But many in The Militia beg to differ (despite the fact that it’s impolite to beg). For instance, followers of the Paleo lifestyle argue that early humans lost the ability to digest lactose (milk sugar) when they grew into adulthood. But a few thousand years ago a mutation spread throughout the human gene pool that extended the secretion of lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose) beyond childhood. This is called “evolution” (or intelligent design) and it’s a good thing. Adults who could digest milk had a source of nutrition available to them when other sources became unavailable due to war, famine or other bad mojo. So milk may not have been a natural for Fred Flintstone but it became a natural for his descendants.
But alas, not all descendants. There are still people today that are legitimately lactose intolerant. There are also people who avoid milk or choose alternatives for many other reasons such as perceived health benefits, environmental concerns, and simple matters of taste. Do milk alternatives actually live up to their reputations? That depends on what kind of milk you got.
Got <Almond/Hemp/Rice/Soy/Proprietary> Milk?
With the health claims of milk on the attack, the various milk lobbies changed their tune. Instead of telling you milk is a natural and will make you a better athlete, they sold milk as a necessary ingredient to a tasty treat and added the tag line “Got Milk?”.
The above video is a great example. It’s clever. It’s product placement within product placement ( a milk ad hidden within an ad for artificially-colored-and-highly-processed-grain-coated-in-sugar). But best of all it includes Harland Williams of 7-minute abs fame.
The dairy lobby needed to be more aggressive in its advertising. When you combine the sales of traditional cow’s milk with that of alternatives, alternative milks represent only 8% of the total market but it’s growing quickly (sales are up 94% in the last 5 years).
The analysis below compares a few of the well-known traditional products with some of the most popular alternatives. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- There is no regulated or “normal” process for manufacturing milk alternatives. Even within the same family, there is a wide range of sources (e.g., conventional vs. organic), processing methods and additives (e.g., sweetened vs. unsweetened, flavored).
- This analysis looks at unflavored, unsweetened versions. Other versions will have different (usually worse) macronutrient and calorie profiles.
- While the other variables such as source and processing method may impact the quality and purity of the end product, they won’t significantly impact the macronutrient content.
- To keep the analysis manageable, I’m only including some of the more common alternatives. Besides what I discuss here, there are so many other varieties (oat, cashew, quinoa, Soylent). The HIC probably launched two or three new types since I started writing this post 20 minutes ago.
With the blah-blah-blah behind us, here is how the different varieties stack up when you compare calories and macronutrients.
As you can see, there are vast differences between them.
But what does this chart mean to real people? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of each type.
Whole milk is high in calories. This is a consideration for someone who wants to lose weight. But with its high protein count it’s a great source of nutrition for athletes, athletes-in-training, or people who want to bulk up. It may not pack the protein-per-calorie wallop of a piece of meat, but it’s a lot easier to down in mass quantities.
Milk is a great source of Vitamin D which is a critical component for many essential body functions and is difficult to get from dietary sources. Milk is well known for its high calcium content but there are so many better sources that calcium content alone should not be a reason to choose milk.
Whole milk is high in saturated fat. This is a big contributor to the calorie count but is probably not a concern for people of average health. As noted in mantra #5 of The Karma Sense Eating Plan, Eat Good Fats Daily and Get a Balance of the Different Types of Good Fats, saturated fat is not generally a health issue. However, there is no reason to go out of your way to get extra saturated fat in your diet.
Next, unless otherwise noted. Milk contains a kind of sugar called lactose. For people who don’t produce the lactase enzyme, this is a problem. For other people who want to watch their sugar, this is an important thing to note but lactose seems to lack the same blood sugar spiking punch as table sugar (sucrose).
Finally, cows have a pretty heavy environmental footprint. It takes a lot of resources to maintain them, they’re often mistreated, and to thank us for that mistreatment, they fart a lot. All that methane wreaks havoc on our air quality.
Skim or nonfat milk is just milk with the fat removed. Some people prefer the taste and mouth feel of whole milk but this opinion is not universal. Other than the lower calories and lack of fat, it shares all the same benefits and issues as whole milk.
Grass Fed Milk
Conventional dairy milk comes from grain fed cows. Why this is called “conventional” when a cow’s natural diet is grass, I’ll never know. Thanks to subsidies to the grain industry and other logistical advantages of grain over grass, milk from grain fed cows is cheaper. But. grass fed cows may be better for the environment. This claim isn’t a slam dunk because it is highly dependent on the entire life cycle of the cow and the manufacturing processed to extract the milk. The advantage of milk from grass fed cows is that the fat profile is better. The saturated fat in grass fed milk is higher in a fatty acid called Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA seems to have beneficial effects when it comes to overall metabolic health (i.e. weight loss, heart health, etc.). Grass fed milk also contains more omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Finally, grass fed milk tends to be higher in antioxidants like Vitamin E but this is highly dependent on the types of grass they eat.
Proprietary Milk is a catch-all name for any number of products that change the nutritional profile of “open source” milk in a way that makes it more desirable to certain consumers. Most often, these changes are all in the name of profits. Lactaid, brought to you by McNeil Nutritionals (brought to you by Johnson & Johnson) is one brand that’s been around for years. It’s milk with the lactose removed. Otherwise, it’s nutritionally the same. But surely there’s a way to take regular milk and tweak it to meet whatever the dietary fad of the moment is! Of course there is! And it’s brought to you by the world’s premier manufacturer of colored sugar water, Coca Cola. Their Fairlife milk has a whopping(?) 5 extra grams of protein (the equivalent of one hard boiled egg) Fairlife is also higher in calcium (which we already established is not so important) and is lactose-free. All of this at 125% of the cost of a glass of open source milk and a hard boiled egg.
Now, be sure you’re seated because you’re about to be as shocked as I was when I first learned this. Almond milk is not made by tiny little sprites whose hands are small enough to caress the teats of individual almonds. Instead, it’s made by grinding almonds into tiny little bits and mixing the results with water. True story! It’s something you can do at home without employing even a single tiny little sprite. Sometimes manufacturers add other stuff for better flavor or consistency.
Almond milk’s main advantage is its low-calorie count. While whole almonds have many health benefits, it’s not clear all the goodies remain after the pounding they take when they’re milked. One thing’s for sure, although almonds themselves are a decent protein source, the milk version comes up virtually empty.
For people who are looking out for the environment, almonds are a real nightmare. Most almonds in the U.S. come from drought-stricken central California and almonds are one of the thirstiest crops around. And of course, if you have a nut allergy, almond milk is not an alternative alternative.
Even with twice the protein of almond milk, hemp milk is not exactly a protein powerhouse. Hemp’s big advantages are its super balanced fat profile, including the ever-desirable omega-3s and its light environmental footprint. Hemp can be grown anywhere and under diverse conditions ranging from the most verdant farmlands to the side of a highway to your neighbor’s basement that has all those funny glowing lights leaking out the windows. But the hemp used in hemp milk is not exactly the same as the hemp that gets you stoned. You can decide yourself whether that’s an advantage or disadvantage.
Rice milk is an alternative that was mostly created for people looking to avoid dairy, nuts, and soy. Nutritionally speaking, its the weakest of the bunch. It’s high in calories, high in carbs, and has virtually no protein. Rice, especially brown rice, is now getting some bad press due to its relatively high arsenic content. I think these findings are overblown. But they do exist and you should know about them.
When it comes to protein per calorie, soy is as good a source of nutrition as cow’s milk. It’s also much lower in carbohydrates. Soy contains a plant form of estrogen, the female sex hormone. Too much soy can be detrimental to men and women but men are especially susceptible. If you eat soy in other forms such as tofu, tempeh, or as an ingredient to some other food, you may want to consider an alternative to soy milk. At my age, I’m quickly moving into mansiere (aka The Bro) territory. I don’t need to help the process by eating too much soy.
Another consideration for soy is its environmental impact. Soy is a huge cash crop and like other cash crops (e.g., sugar, corn), the HIC has figured out ways to grow it in the most damaging ways possible. And, if you’re worried about GMOs, soy is a common culprit.
Your decision on which type of milk to drink should be based on why you’re drinking it. There is no right answer for all people. Here are some tips to help you choose.
- Whether your milk comes from an animal or plant it’s always best if the source is raised in a way that is close to how nature intended Animals that are fed their natural diets, in low stress environments will product the best milk. Plants that are minimally treated with human-made pesticides and fertilizers will have the greatest health benefits.
- Unless you’re lactose intolerant or vegan, cows milk is the best choice for the athlete.
- Unsweetened almond milk is the lowest calorie choice and best for people who want to lose weight. Too bad if you’re allergic to nuts or if you love the planet.
- Soy milk is a great one-for-one replacement of dairy milk but consult with a nutrition expert before drinking too much.
- Hemp milk has the advantage of containing a lot of good fats.
- Don’t replace cows milk in recipes with one of the substitutes without doing your research first. Because each of the substitutes are chemically different and have different flavors, an incorrect choice could be a disaster. But if the extent of your cooking skills is pouring milk into a bowl of Trix cereal, you should be OK with any of the alternatives.