Examining milk alternatives

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute a guest post. The latest post is from dietetic intern Charlotte Martin.

Gone are the days when milk came only from cows. Now you can make "milk" out of just about anything, from nuts to rice, even hemp.

There are several reasons why one might choose a nondairy alternative over cow's milk, most commonly because of lactose intolerance or veganism. But with so many nondairy "milks" to choose from, it can be overwhelming perusing the milk section of the supermarket. Here are some differences, and pros and cons, of the top three most popular nondairy milk alternatives:

Almond milk: Its nutty and creamy flavor isn't the only reason almond milk is one of the most popular nondairy milk alternatives on the market. Consumers enjoy almond milk as a healthy alternative for those with milk protein/soy allergies and for its potential help with weight management. An 8-ounce glass of almond milk has 60 calories and contains no cholesterol or saturated fat (compared to the 120 calories, 20 milligrams cholesterol and 3 grams of saturated fat in 2 percent reduced-fat cow's milk), providing its fat content in the form of heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

While almond milk does seem to be a great alternative for those following a heart-healthy diet, it's important to note that it's a poor source of protein, providing only 1 gram per 8-ounce glass. compared to the 8 grams cow's milk provides.

Coconut milk (not to be mistaken with the canned coconut milk): Did you know that coconuts aren't nuts, they're fruits? While its name may be deceiving, its smooth taste and noticeable coconut flavor isn't. Coconut milk is another nondairy alternative that is lower in calories than 2 percent reduced-fat cow's milk, providing 80 calories per 8-ounce glass. While coconut milk is cholesterol-free, its primary fat source is saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease. The primary saturated fat in coconut milk is medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are metabolized differently than other forms of saturated fats. Some studies show that MCFAs may promote weight maintenance without raising cholesterol levels; however, the research in this area is limited.

Soy milk: At 110 calories per 8-ounce glass, soy milk is another great, yet higher calorie, nondairy alternative. Usually, some sugar or sweetener is added to mask the bitter taste of unsweetened soymilk, which contributes to the higher caloric content. Although soy is a common allergen, consumers who can tolerate soy can benefit from its cholesterol-free and low saturated fat content (0.5 grams). Much like almond milk, the majority of its fat content is in the form of heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Soy milk also has the highest protein content of the three, providing 8 grams per 8-ounce glass, which is the same as the 8 grams of protein an 8-ounce glass of 2 perent milk provides. Beware if you are choosing a light version of soy milk: It will likely have lower protein content.

If you've decided to give dairy-free milk alternatives a try, consider these guidelines:

•Choose calcium- and vitamin D-fortified brands. Homemade versions and some store-bought versions are poor sources of calcium and vitamin D, especially in comparison to cow's milk. However, there are many calcium and vitamin D-fortified brands available.

•Choose refrigerated over nonrefrigerated. Refrigerated nondairy milk alternatives typically have a shorter shelf life, which means fewer artificial ingredients.

•Choose original or unsweetened versions. Nondairy milk alternatives come in a variety of flavors, including vanilla and chocolate. It's best to stick with the plain or unsweetened versions to avoid the artificial ingredients that are added to the flavored versions.