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Got Milk? Yup, and Not a Cow to Be Found

Alternative versions can come from soy, rice, even nuts, experts say

FRIDAY, Jan. 5, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- As a child, practically nothing beat a glass of ice-cold milk to wash down a few homemade cookies. But as an adult, you've probably moved away from milk, even though it's one of the best sources of calcium you can find.

Maybe you don't like the taste. Or you're trying to cut calories. Or you get indigestion or a stomach ache when you drink it and have switched to one of the nondairy alternatives, such as beverages made with soy, rice or nuts.

But how do these other beverages compare to the real thing, and are you missing out nutritionally? Who should switch, who shouldn't, and how do you find the best of the alternative drinks?

For certain people, these alternatives to cow's milk are a necessity, said Roberta Anding, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a clinical dietitian at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston.

"If you have a cow's milk protein allergy, the 'other milks,' such as soy or rice, are a must," she said. "If you are lactose intolerant [and have trouble digesting the natural sugar found in milk], these milks can also be a good option for you. Those with irritable bowel syndrome also find comfort or relief in finding an alternative milk."

"Or, if you have gas, bloating, diarrhea after drinking milk, you might want to try an alternative," Anding added.

Deanna Segrave-Daly, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia who's a spokeswoman for the National Dairy Council, said consumers should be cautious shoppers when looking for a non-milk beverage. "There are many different products, and the fortified nutrient profiles can really vary," she said.

The options are plentiful, and widely available, taking up shelf space at your local market next to regular milks. There's soy milk, nut milks, and beverages made with rice and grains.

But, Anding said, you'll need to shop wisely to find non-diary beverages that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. For example, with a nondairy alternative, you won't get Vitamin B12, which originates from animal products, unless the manufacturer has fortified it, she said. Some do.

Before buying any alternative milk, Anding said, look at the nutrition-facts panel to see if the products are comparable with traditional milk.

While you won't get exactly the same nutrients, Anding said, "look for B12, vitamin D and calcium. If the manufacturer has added those, you have a product that is in the same ballpark as regular milk," she said. "Milk is also a good source of riboflavin. Non-milks won't be unless they are enriched. And most of these alternative milks are not a terribly good source of calcium, unless the calcium has been added."

"Calorie-wise, a lot depends on whether the beverages are full fat, lite, or somewhere in-between," Anding said.

On one point, the alternative beverages usually win out, Anding said. They have less saturated fat, known to contribute to heart-disease risk, than whole cow's milk, she said.

Here's a head-to-head comparison of a cup of soy milk and a cup of fat-free milk:

  • Soy milk has 100 calories, while fat-free milk has 80.
  • Soy milk has 4 grams of fat, while the fat-free version has zero.
  • Both offer vitamins A, D and calcium.

Milk and alternative-milk products vary greatly, so the best course is to compare the nutrient panel of the milk you usually drink with that of the non-milk beverage.

"There are some nondairy beverages fortified to almost mimic what is in milk," Segrave-Daly said.

Expect to take a while to get used to the taste of the some of the non-milk options. And expect to pay more, Segrave-Daly said. For instance, at a southern California market, a half gallon of silk soy milk was $3.99, and a half gallon of rice milk was $4.39. A gallon of low-fat milk was $3.39.

More information

To learn more about milk and non-milk beverages, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: Roberta Anding, R.D., spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, and clinical dietitian, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; Deanna Segrave-Daly, R.D., registered dietitian, Philadelphia, and spokeswoman, National Dairy Council, Rosemont, Ill.
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