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Milk, minus the 'moo'

Nondairy alternatives such as soy and almond milks see growth in sales

Addie Broyles

They say a person can't last three days without water, but any parent knows that if you run out of milk, you've got about a day to replace it before things start to fall apart. (In my house, my oldest son tolerates dry cereal about as long as I tolerate black coffee.)

But what if you're considering replacing the milk itself?

For generations, cow's milk has been sold as the gold standard of U.S. nutrition, the preferred choice for kids to eat with their lunches at school, and with all that protein, it's practically a meal in a glass.

However, with lactose intolerance and milk allergies on the rise, as well as a growing concern about the environmental impact of the dairy industry and the possible connection between cow's milk and a number of health issues, including ear, nose and throat problems, obesity and even cancer, millions of families are switching to a number of milk alternatives made with various nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. (See box on back page for more information about the arguments for and against cow's milk.)

In the past year, sales of milk alternatives have increased 17.5 percent, while the total number of gallons of regular milk sold have dropped about two percent, according to market research company SymphonyIRI.

No matter the reason you're bringing home something other than cow's milk, it's important to know that just because it looks like milk and is labeled "milk," liquids made from soy beans, rice, hemp, almond or flaxseeds have different nutritional profiles than real milk.

"People mistakenly think that just because it's soy or almond that it's going to be the best for you all around \u2026 or that just because it says 'milk' that it has the same benefits of cow's milk," says Sally Bowman, a registered and licensed dietitian who works as a consultant at Central Texas Nutrition Consultants. The dairy industry has tried to push back against manufacturers calling these products "milk" but so far hasn't won over the Food and Drug Administration.

Regardless of the name, it's important to read the nutritional labels before making a decision about what to drink or serve your kids. Almost all have added calcium and vitamin D, the two big selling points for cow's milk in the first place, but few of them have as much protein. Many of the chocolate- and vanilla-flavored milks contain added sugar, as much as 30 grams per serving, and if they don't have much protein, their nutritional profile can be closer to juice than it is to milk, Bowman says.

You can get protein from a number of sources, but calcium can be harder to come by. Bowman says that companies that are making these milk alternatives are aiming for a similar nutritional profile by adding about the same amount of calcium and vitamin D per serving that cow's milk provides. School-age kids need between 800 milligrams and 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day, as well as vitamin D to help them absorb it, which you can usually get in three glasses of cow's milk or an alternative, but it's best to include a variety of calcium sources, such as green vegetables and legumes, instead of relying on one source.

Most grocery stores now sell soy and almond milks in the refrigerated section and a wider variety in aseptic, shelf-stable boxes at a slightly higher cost per ounce. Many of the brands have added single-serving boxes that you can pack into your kids' lunchboxes, but you could also use a good old-fashioned thermos, too.

Homemade nut milks are relatively easy to make, and by making your own, you can control the amount and kind of sweetener and eliminate the stabilizers found in the commercial varieties.

Start with whole, unroasted nuts (cashews, almonds and even macadamia nuts work well) and soak them in water overnight. Puree them in a food processor or blender, using about three cups of water with every cup of nuts, and then strain through a cheesecloth-lined colander. Honey and agave nectar are good sweeteners, but you could use regular sugar, too. Add a tablespoon of cocoa powder and a splash of vanilla, if you want.

Another option is coconut milk, which is available by the can and has a wonderful flavor but is too thick to drink by itself. You can dilute it with about two cups of coconut water or regular water and add a dash of vanilla for a nice milk substitute.

When it comes to baking, you can use any of the alternative milks in place of regular milk with similar results.

Now, about the taste. For most of us, cow's milk has a flavor and texture that are ingrained in our taste memory and that alternative milks just can't replicate, but some of them are closer than others. Almond and hemp milks are the creamiest, but hemp milk has a strong, slightly funky flavor. Vanilla-flavored rice and soy milks are popular because they are sweeter than the plain varieties, which can taste a little chalky and watery. The best rice milks taste like horchata, the Mexican rice milk drink flavored with vanilla and sugar.

Austinite Eric Sartoris and his family of five drink mostly soy milk, mainly out of concern for the welfare of the animals and antibiotics and hormones that are often given to dairy cows, he says. The kids — ages 13, 10 and 8 — enjoy both the plain and vanilla soy milk, but chocolate almond milk is the real treat.

Their kids' school only offers plain or flavored cow's milk. "So they just drink water with their lunch," he says. "It'd be great if the schools offered an option."; 912-2504

The Great Milk Debate

In the U.S., to drink milk or not to drink milk wasn't really a question 20 or 30 years ago, but in recent years, we have gained a better understanding of milk allergies, lactose intolerance and the environmental impact of the dairy industry, and a number of studies have come out challenging the notion that milk does a body good.

Caucasians have a much higher ability to digest lactose than just about every other ethnic group in the world, and lactose intolerance increases with age, says Sally Bowman, a registered and licensed dietitian with Central Texas Nutrition Consultants. Milk allergy is different because the body has an allergic reaction to one of the proteins in milk, not the lactose, which is a sugar. (It's worth noting that goat's milk is starting to become available in more stores and its nutritional profile is similar to milk, but with more calcium and lower levels of lactose and the type of casein that causes most milk allergies. Kefir is a drink of fermented cow, sheep or goat milk that also has lower levels of lactose.)

A number of prominent scientists, including researchers from Cornell and Oxford universities, are researching the possible connection between milk and a number of illnesses, including respiratory problems, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer and obesity. One of the most notable of these is T. Colin Campbell's so-called China Study, a 20-year project that tracked the health of more than 6,000 people in rural China and suggests that many common health problems are connected to eating animal products. Cows also produce millions of tons of methane, which the Environmental Protection Agency says is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In its official dietary guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lumps together cow's milk and fortified "milk products" when it recommends that school-age children and adults drink about three cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk.

"There's a need for us to scrutinize what we're eating, no doubt, but there's a lot of alarmism," Bowman says. She says it's important to look at your overall diet and that an ideal diet varies greatly from person to person. "We need to look at what's in the diet and not just what's not in the diet," she says. "There's not a one size fits all."

— A.B.