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Which Dairy-free Milk Should I Choose?

At one time the only milk substitute available in grocery stores was soya milk, but have you noticed the variety of dairy-free options now available? You can choose from milks based on rice, oats, nuts and hemp. According to the Food, Drug and Mass Merchandisers, sales of dairy-free milks are worth almost $1.1billion, with sales up by 16% in the last year. Business is booming for producers of dairy alternatives, but what is fueling growth in the sector and how do these substitutes compare nutritionally with milk?

Choosing to ditch dairy

There are various reasons why you might choose a plant-based alternative to milk. Firstly, if you follow a vegan diet, dairy-free milks can fill a gap in your diet, both practically and nutritionally. A survey by Vegetarian Times revealed there are one million vegans in America, and with the number of people shunning all animal produce on the increase, there is a growing demand for plant-based milks. Even if you don’t follow a strict vegan diet, you may still choose to cut back on your intake of dairy for ethical or environmental reasons, which again makes non-dairy milks appealing.

Alternatively, you may avoid mammalian milks for medical reasons. Lactose intolerance is relatively common, with 25 percent of Americans having a degree of sensitivity to lactose, as reported by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Lactose-free dairy milks are available, but plant-based milks offer you an alternative. Although less frequent, three percent of infants in the US have cow’s milk protein intolerance, and while 90 percent outgrow the condition by the time they are six years old, a milk substitute is necessary when no longer taking breast milk or a specialist infant formula. The rise in popularity of the Paleo diet and other weight loss plans that promote avoidance of dairy produce is a further reason why you may opt for alternative milks.

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Choosing a dairy-free milk

If you decide to try milk substitutes, your taste preference will partly determine which you choose. However, your choice of milk will also depend on what you are looking for nutritionally from the product. For example, if you are keen to use a dairy substitute that has a similar protein content to mammalian milks, soya-based drinks are your best bet. Soya milk is also rich in phytoestrogens, which may help to lower cholesterol and prevent osteoporosis. An alternative milk for cholesterol-lowering is oat milk, which brings down cholesterol thanks to its soluble fiber content. Hemp milk is another option if you have high cholesterol, as it contains plant sterols. A further cardioprotective benefit of hemp milk is that it provides omega-3 fatty acids.

If you are going dairy-free for reasons relating to an allergy or intolerance, rice milk is a safe option, as it is non-allergenic. You should be aware though that rice milk isn’t suitable for children under five due to the traces of arsenic found in this milk.

Almond and hazelnut milks are naturally lower in carbohydrates and calories than other dairy substitutes, which makes nut milks a popular choice if your aim is weight loss. As nut-based milks aren’t to everyone’s taste, it is useful to know that you can buy no-added-sugar versions of most dairy alternatives. The lower sugar content is good news if you are counting calories or you have diabetes.

Fortification with calcium means that many dairy-free milks are just as high in calcium, if not higher, than milk from cows, sheep, goats and buffalo. Vitamin D and vitamin B12 are also commonly added to dairy substitutes, and further micronutrients are sometimes added. However, not all plant-based milks are fortified, so you need to check the label to make sure whether extra vitamins and minerals have been added. Despite fortification, dairy-free milks are usually unsuitable for children under two, as they do not provide enough energy, protein and micronutrients to support growth and development. There are some milk substitutes though that receive extra fortification to make them suitable for children over one; when this is the case, it is clearly labeled.

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