Got Milk ALTERNATIVE? Part 2: Milk Alternatives From Plants

Got Milk ALTERNATIVE?

Milk Alternatives From Plants

.So … your kid has Eczema? Asthma? Chronic Sinusitis?

If your child has any of these, or other chronic disorders, and you suspect that milk is a trigger – what do you do now?

The first thing to do is confirm that dairy products trigger the problem. Try the elimination diet for confirmation.

Once you confirm that dairy is the problem, you need to find decent alternatives. That can be a challenge.

You may have heard that SOY has problems.

You may have offered your child goat milk out of desperation (no-go).

You may have heard about “hemp” milk (“I’m not giving MY kids anything made from Marijuana!”).

 

That is the topic of this two-part article:

Plant Derived Alternatives to Milk

So let’s start over: if dairy is a trigger for your child’s illness, what ARE the options?

We’ll break the options into two rough categories: “milk” alternatives from plants, and those from animals.

I reviewed those alternatives here, in my article Got Milk Alternative? Milk Alterntives From Other Animals.

From last time …

Got Milk Alternatives? Milk from Other Animals

Got Milk ALTERNATIVES? Part 1 – Milk From Other Animals

 

Y’all know that I was kidding about the chipmunk milk, right?

Today will review the plant alternatives.

We will address milk intolerance separately.

Got Milk ALTERNATIVES? Part 2.

Milk Alternatives From Plants

This article will compare six plant derived alternatives to milk, on 4 criteria – see “Comparisons” below.

First, a warning: there is no better source of nutrition for an infant than good-ole mother’s milk. That’s right, nursing your baby is best, for many good reasons.

The benefits of nursing your baby range from reduced incidence of ear infections (otitis media) to reduced incidence of asthma and allergies. If nursing is just not possible, don’t beat yourself up; no need to feel guilty, you do what you can. If you can’t nurse, note that the following milk-alternatives are NOT substitutes for breast milk; they simply do not have the nutrients of mother’s milk or infant formula.

Second, if your child has a strong reaction to cow’s milk, plant alternatives are guaranteed not to elicit the same reaction because their proteins are nothing like the proteins in cow’s milk. There is a chance that your child will react to something else in these plant products (the proteins that are present in tree nuts or soy, for examples), but it won’t be the milk proteins.

Finally, none of the plant derived milk alternatives contain galactose, so they are all safe for those who are lactose-intolerant. Some DO contain glutens, so beware if you are gluten-sensitive.

Comparisons

Let’s compare the various popular (and some not so popular) milk alternatives that are derived from plant sources. The features that will interest you the most are:

  1. Protein content
    How much protein (grams per 8oz), and whether the protein is “complete” or diverse – whether the protein contains the needed “essential amino acids” that all humans require. Proteins are built from 20 amino acids. Of these, the adult needs 8 amino acids in our diet; growing children need 9 or 10 of these to be supplied in their diet. The more “complex” the proteins that are present, the better.
  2. Fat content
    Fats are not always a bad thing. Infants and growing children need a certain amount of fat – even the “bad” saturated fats – in order to grow their brains.
  3. Vitamin content
    Each of the plant milk alternatives has its strengths in the vitamin area, but keep in mind that even a low-vitamin milk alternative can be (should be) supplemented with a daily multi-vitamin.
  4. Calories per cup (8 oz)
    Mother’s milk has the perfect calorie content, calories that are derived from a balance of complex protein, a mix of fats – saturated and unsaturated, and carbohydrates. That will remain the “gold standard.” Cow’s milk comes a close second to your milk for your infant. None of the plant derived milk alternatives comes close to these with regard to this balance.

Soy Milk

Soy “milk” is made by soaking soy beans, then grinding and straining them. The resulting liquid is smooth, slightly “nutty,” and creamy. In addition, soy plants actually absorb carbon, so they have a negative carbon-footprint (the opposite from those methane-belching cows. Consider that there IS environmental impact from growing soy, especially in some countries, where forest lands are cleared in order to grow soy. Overall, at first glance, soy products would seem to be a great plant-derived alternative to milk. Here are the other considerations:

  1. This is where soy shines relative to other plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk. The protein content of soy milk is complex, providing a diverse collection of the essential amino acids, and the protein content for most brands of soy milk are high (similar to cow’s milk).
  2. Minimal saturated fat – another positive; overall, less than half the fat of cow’s milk.
  3. Unless supplemented (“fortified”), soy milk is lower in calcium and vitamin D.
  4. Calorie content approximately equal to or 1% low fat cow’s milk, but this depends on brand and preparation.

Special Considerations:  There are several considerations to using soy as a milk alternative for infants  and toddlers. (1) The first is the high concentration of phytoestrogens present in some soy products. Whereas there is little data on the effects of phytoestrogens in humans, animal studies suggest possible endocrine disruption resulting from phytoestrogens in growing children: early puberty, thyroid problems, or other endocrine difficulties. The jury is still out, but caution and your own further education are advised. (2) The next consideration is that most soy is grown with pesticides. You are urged to consider organic soy. (3) Soy protein is one of the 8 most common allergens. Therefore, be certain that you or your little one are not allergic to soy protein before moving over to this milk alternative. It is for these reasons that soy should be reserved as a milk alternative for specific circumstances for infants and children.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is processed from brown rice. It is low fat and lactose-free. Unfortunately, it is low in protein, and high in sugar. It is sweeter and thinner than most plant-derived milk alternatives. It can take some getting used to if cooking with it as a milk alternative.

  1. Rice milk contains about 1/8 the amount of protein present in cow’s milk or soy milk.
  2. Higher in fats than soy milk or non-fat cow milk; low in saturated fats.
  3. Only the fortified varieties contain significant vitamins and minerals.
  4. More calories than low-fat cow milk or other plant derived milk alternatives due to more than twice the sugar content of the others. Not necessarily a good thing for your kiddo.

Special Considerations: If you purchase rice milk, buy the unsweetened variety that is fortified with calcium and vitamins.

Milk From Nuts

Almond Milk

Almond milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives. It is made by grinding almonds in water, and adding sugar and salt for flavor. As expected, it has a nuttier flavor than milk. In order to give almond milk a “creamy” consistency, virtually all of the store-bought brands contain added ingredients (various “gums”) that are not necessarily desirable.

  1. Almond milks, like rice milks, contain very little protein. This is the major downside of almond milk.
  2. Fat content is about twice that of soy milks, but no saturated fats.
  3. Almond milks are rich in vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and other nutrient minerals, but no calcium or vitamin D unless fortified; most of the popular brand are fortified.
  4. Almond-based milks contain about half the calories of nonfat cow’s milk.

Special Considerations: If you select almond milk as your alternative to cow’s milk, you must have another protein source. In addition, because almonds are expensive, the amount of actual almonds used to make each of the brands of almond milk is difficult (impossible) to know. That means, it is difficult to know how much of the benefits of almond milk (good source of unsaturated fats, various vitamins) are present in the final product. None of the popular commercial almond milk products is “pure” almond milk. Each of them contains various ingredients to make it creamier. Final advice: read the label.

Plant-derived milk alternatives

Image: Plant Derived Milk Alternatives: Coconut Milk

Coconut Milk

There are two types of coconut milk available: canned coconut milk that is used in Thai cooking (and is very high in fat), and refrigerated coconut milk, that we will review here. The “coconut milk” that is commonly available in the supermarket is not the fresh liquid from the heart of the coconut. Instead, it is made by combining shredded coconut flesh with water and squeezing.

  1. The protein content of coconut milk is extremely low, and low-complexity.
  2. The fat content of coconut milk is high, and – despite being a plant product – it is all saturated fat. There is some debate about whether coconut saturated fat is as potentially harmful as saturated fats from animals. Also note that saturated fats are not necessarily a negative for infants. The fat content of mother’s milk or cow’s milk is one of the benefits to nursing infants. Those fats are necessary for growing brains.
  3. There is negligible vitamin or nutrient content unless fortified.
  4. Despite its high fat content, coconut milk contains only about half the calories of 2% cow’s milk.

Special Considerations: Aside from being a plant source of fats, and sweet taste, there is little to recommend coconut milk for infants or children as a milk alternative.

Hemp Milk

Contrary to common belief, hemp seed products such as hemp milk, do not make you high. Hemp milk is entirely legal. Hemp milk is made like almond milk: by soaking the hemp seeds in water and grinding them. The consistency is similar to rice or soy milk, but hemp milk has been described as “gritty”. Due to the recent commercial availability, there are few studies on the nutrient value of hemp milk. It can be difficult to find.

  1. Hemp milk falls on the low side, between cow’s milk and the other plant derived milk alternatives. Depending on the brand, hemp milk will contain between 2 and 4 grams of protein per cup (as compared to 8 grams for cow’s milk, and about 6 grams for soy). Hemp does provide complex protein, and is a “complete” source of essential amino acids.
  2. The fat content is one of the highest, at least as high as coconut milk, but nearly all of it is beneficial, unsaturated fats. That is, hemp milk is a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In other words, it’s all good fats.
  3. The vitamin content of hemp milk is nothing special, and – similar to most other plant derived milks – requires fortification for vitamins and nutrients.
  4. The calorie content of hemp milk falls between soy milk and cow’s milk.

Special Considerations: As a newer addition to the offerings of plant derived milks, hemp can be challenging to find at your local grocer.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is the latest plant derived milk to hit the market. As a result, it is the most difficult to find, and has the least amount of nutritional data available. Oat milk is made using a blend of cooked oats, water, and a touch of salt and sugar for flavor. The nutrient profile of fortified oat milk is nearly identical to that of rice milk, but oat milk is higher in protein.

  1. Similar to hemp milk, oat milk contains between 2 and 4 grams per cup.
  2. The fat content is about half that of coconut milk, but is nearly all unsaturated (good) fats.
  3. Similar to other plant milks, oat milk requires fortification.
  4. The calorie content of oat milk is on the high end for plant derived milk alternatives.

Other Considerations

Most of the plant derived milk alternatives come from crops that are treated with pesticides. Most are available in organic brands. Even considering all of the environmental issues with these crops (deforestation, etc), all of these milk alternatives have a lower carbon footprint than cow’s milk.

Some of these can be difficult to find at your local grocer. Most of them are at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. If you are not fortunate enough to live near one of these great sources, most of these milks are available online from Amazon.

Note regarding gluten-free: Note that plain cow’s milk is gluten-free. Some of the plant alternatives are, some are not. If looking for a milk alternative, and you are looking gluten-free, some of these plant-derived milks DO contain glutens and should be avoided. The nut derived milks, and hemp milk, are gluten-free.

Rice Dream rice milk is labeled “gluten-free” but should be used with caution by those who are gluten sensitive. Rice Dream is processed with barley enzymes, and some gluten-sensitive people report reacting to it (for whatever reason).

Most oat milk contains glutens.

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Hi, I’m Russell Faust, author of this medical education blog.

Russell Faust, PhD, MD boogordoctor

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Resources:

Image Credits:

Marijuana leaves: in public domain; from wikimedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marijuana.jpg

Coconuts: Used under Creative Commons License, from wikimedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coconut_123.jpg

These are some excellent resources for optimizing your infant’s or child’s nutrition. I have borrowed heavily from all of these sources, and gratefully acknowledge them here!

http://www.onegreenplanet.org/foodandhealth/the-ultimate-guide-to-plant-based-milks/

http://www.nu-train.com/repository/?s=milk+alternatives

http://www.littlestomaks.com/ask-the-expert-soy-milk-alternatives/

http://www.littlestomaks.com/ask-the-expert-choosing-the-right-milk-for-your-toddler/

http://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-nutrition/brain-food-for-kids.aspx

http://kckidsdoc.com/the-alterna-milks-cow%E2%80%99s-milk-alternatives-for-toddlers.html

http://www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/food_and_drink/847876/top_10alternatives_to_cows_milk.html

http://www.coreperformance.com/daily/nutrition/6-alternatives-to-cows-milk.html

The Dark Side of Soy: article in Utne Reader, 2007. http://www.utne.com/2007-07-01/Science-Technology/The-Dark-Side-of-Soy.aspx

The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food. This is a book review on Dr. Mercola’s site: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2008/07/17/the-whole-soy-story-the-dark-side-of-america-s-favorite-health-food.aspx

And yet another source that lists potential problems with soy: http://electroherbalism.com/Naturopathy/Therapies/Diet/Soy/index.htm

Comments

  1. If you had to pick just one-which one would you use. When I weight the pros and cons –I lean toward the almond or help but was interested on what you use.

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Hi Angela,
      That’s a tough one. The best plant-derived milk alternative, from the perspective of protein content, is soy-milk. That was a huge consideration for our own monkeys, because they are vegetarians (by their own choice). This was especially for the one with eczema. Dairy triggers his eczema, but he won’t drink soy milk. He will drink the almond milk alternatives, though. I like the sound of the hemp-based milk, but have not tried it yet. Based on the description, and based on experience trying to get the monkeys to drink something “strange,” it may be a battle. And we live by the adage, “pick your battles wisely.”
      What have you tried? Any suggestions? Any additions to what I covered?
      Thanks for visiting, and for taking the time to join the conversation!
      RF

      • Thanks for the quick response! My family and I have personally tried almond and coconut. I hated the coconut, don’t mind the almond, and am ready to try the soy milk. I get nervous recommending soy to my patients as I’m not always sure they do their homework getting organic authentic soy milk. It seems the obvious choice, but being in traditional medicine-I have been emotionally scarred by a false positive newborn screen on my first daughter which forced me to put her on soy formula. She was miserable and weeks later, we found our it was a lab error so it ruined breast feeding. My second daughter breast fed for a year and it was such an entirely wonderful experience. Guess it’s time to fight the soy demon and take that leap! Thanks for your post–greatly appreciate doctors that feel nutrition has a huge roll in prevention and medicine!

        • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

          Hi Angela,
          Thank you again for your kind comments.
          Our experience with nursing was similar. What a huge positive difference it makes. We also tried coconut, but it was less than I expected.
          Thanks for sharing, and please share your enthusiasm for this site with friends and patients. I developed this site entirely for my own patients and their families. Have been astonished and flattered with the growth in traffic: over 20,000 views per month now!
          Best in health,
          RF

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