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A Buyer's Guide to Milk Alternatives

Don't have a cow: milk can come from many sources.

Nine out of 10 glasses of milk consumed in the United States come from cows, but increasingly, Americans are “milking” other options. For instance, sales of goat’s milk more than doubled from 2003 to 2007 and the demand for “alterna-milks” (made from soy, rice, almond and even hemp) is at an all-time high. Though you may drink these plant-based milks in place of what Elsie produces, “Technically, these drinks aren’t really milk,” says Catherine W. Donnelly, Ph.D., of the University of Vermont. “Milk is a secretion from mammary glands and plants don’t have mammary glands.” What’s more, plant-based milks don’t contain lactose, the sugar found in milk, and with the exception of almond milk, they naturally contain only negligible amounts of calcium. And, though many are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, they may not be as nutritious.

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Milk/”Milk” Taste Test

Cow’s milk

Nutrition notes: One cup provides a third of the recommended daily dose for calcium and 16% of the daily value for protein. It’s a good source of vitamin D (through fortification) and phosphorus, which build strong bones, as well as the B vitamin riboflavin.

Goat’s milk

Taste tips: Goat’s milk has a strong (tangy/sour) flavor. Some of our Test Kitchen staff likened it to “drinking goat cheese.”

Nutrition notes: Like cow’s milk, goat’s milk contains lactose, just a tad less. Many suggest that people who are allergic to cow’s milk can tolerate goat’s milk but immunologists often advise those allergic to cow’s milk to avoid goat’s milk, too, because of cross-reactivity risks.

Soy “milk”

Taste tips: If you’re looking for a drink comparable to cow’s milk, EatingWell’s Test Kitchen recommends sweetened soymilk, such as Plain Silk. Varieties labeled “unsweetened” tend to impart a “beany” flavor. (If it’s not labeled “unsweetened,” generally it’s sweetened.)

Nutrition notes: Studies link soy’s protein and phytoestrogens with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Choose a soymilk fortified with calcium and vitamin D (30% DV and 25% DV, respectively)—and shake before you pour, as added nutrients can settle to the bottom of the carton.

Rice “milk”

Taste tips: From the standpoint of taste, texture and appearance, rice milk is—hands down—the best substitute for cow’s milk, concurs EatingWell’s Test Kitchen crew. Staff favorite: WestSoy Rice Plain.

Nutrition notes: Rice milk is lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates than cow’s milk and soymilk. It’s also a poor natural source of calcium so choose one that’s fortified with the mineral.

Almond “milk”

Taste tips: Almond milk doesn’t taste much like cow’s milk, but if you’re looking for a plant-based drink with “inherently delicious” flavor, says one of our tasters, it’s worth a try. Some brands (e.g., Westsoy Unsweetened Almond, Blue Diamond Almond Breeze) are “nuttier” than others, our Test Kitchen notes.

Nutrition notes: Almond milk is naturally high in calcium. Buy one that’s fortified with vitamin D, too, for a nutrition profile similar to cow’s milk.

Hemp

Taste tips: Our testers’ comments ranged from “grainy and nutty” to “gritty, dirty and unacceptable.” Hemp-based milk is a poor substitute for cow’s milk, says our Test Kitchen.

Nutrition notes: Hemp milk supplies high-quality protein (i.e., a good mix of amino acids) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid.

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