Monday, July 27, 2009

The Truth About Milk, Part 11: Alternatives



So we've spent all this time dealing with not drinking milk or consuming milk-based products. Hopefully by now you're convinced, or you're at least doing your own research.

If not milk products, though, then what? So many things we eat revolve around milk, cheese, cream, etc. that cutting these items from our diet can be a daunting prospect. And while it certainly does take a little effort, it's not as hard as it sounds.

There are a number of dairy-free alternatives to common products on the market. Some are healthier than others and some even pose their own share of health risks. Let's take a look at a few.

As a disclaimer, we are talking about adult consumption. None of these products are acceptable for exclusive infant nutrition. Neither is cow's milk, for that matter. Infant formula is acceptable as a last resort, as we have discussed. None of the milk alternatives discussed here should be used as a breastmilk replacement for babies.

Milk Alternative: Soy Milk
Example product: Silk
Soy milk has been around for an extremely long time and was once considered the best non-dairy milk available. For a long time it was also the only easily obtainable alternative. But soy milk has its own problems and health risks. To start, soy contains high amounts of phytoestrogen, which can affect hormone levels in both men and women. Children and babies raised on soy formula are also affected by this hormone and some researchers have even pointed to the rising proliferation of soy in our diets as a reason why American teens are entering puberty earlier and earlier.

In addition to this, non-organic soy products are often processed at high temperatures, resulting in the formation of dangerous chemicals. Even some organic soy milks are being questioned.

The dangers of soy milk are beyond the scope of what I want to cover in this series. You can very easily research them yourself, however, with a simple Google search. Also, check out this nice summary of soy's risks and this compilation of soy articles.

Milk Alternative: Rice Milk
Example product: Rice Dream
Rice milk is a very simple product usually made from rice (or rice syrup), water, salt, etc. It is a fine choice health wise, having no risky ingredients like soy milk. However, rice milk is also lacking in beneficial ingredients. Milled rice, even brown rice, doesn't contain many nutrients. And if it's made with processed brown rice, it can end up being no better than white bread, which is another product that should be avoided.

There are also some dangers associated with rice milk. As several studies have shown, rice milk and other rice-based drinks contain trace amounts of arsenic. Arsenic is very toxic and is a known carcinogen. The amounts present in rice milk are extremely low, but over time can pose risks, especially to children.

At best, rice milk is fairly benign and if you like it, it's a fine substitute to cow's milk.

Milk Alternative: Almond Milk
Example product: Almond Breeze
This is my personal favorite. Almond milk is made from mostly almonds and water and can even be made easily at home. It's surprisingly nutritious, as almonds are one of the healthiest nuts available. Almonds provide ample amounts of calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, potasium, and mono-unsaturated fat. Some of the nutritional value is lost in processing, obviously, but almond milk is still a surprisingly healthy beverage. And since it's made with just almonds and water, there are no risks associated with it.

As always, be sure to check ingredients to ensure that the brand of almond milk you buy doesn't contain additives or chemicals.

Cream Alternative: MimicCream
Product website
I have not personally tried this product, but definitely intend to do so. It is made from mostly nuts, similar to almond milk, but is designed to not have a nutty flavor. It can be used for baking, recipes, or anywhere heavy cream is needed.

Ice Cream Alternatives
For the most part, the non-dairy ice creams available commercially are made with soy milk or rice milk. There are also some commercial ice cream products made with coconut milk. I didn't discuss coconut milk above because it's not really a viable alternative to cow's milk, mostly due to it's distinct coconut taste. There was some discussion several years ago that coconut milk and coconut oil were harmful due to the fact that they raise blood cholesterol. This is simply not the case, however. Natural coconut products do not contain cholesterol, nor do they raise blood cholesterol. Coconut milk is a healthy product, though, for some, it may act as a mild laxative. :-)

When buying a commercial non-dairy ice cream product, be sure to read the ingredients carefully to ensure that they don't contain any of the milk-derived substances we discussed previously. Many of these ingredients can be present in a product and yet still be labeled non-dairy.

Another, far healthier alternative is to make your own ice cream. We started doing this ourselves recently. We bought an inexpensive ice cream maker (get one that doesn't require rock salt), then got ingredients. I use 2 cups of coconut milk, 1 cup of almond milk, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 1 tsp. of vanilla extract. I even mixed in some shredded coconut. The result is an awesome, yummy, and even healthy dessert.

Cheese Alternatives
There are a few alternatives to cheese out there, but they aren't perfect. For the most part, they're only available at health food stores and are usually quite expensive. The main dairy-free cheese products are also fairly processed and manufactured and occasionally contain hydrogenated oil. The three biggest dairy-free cheese products are Veggie, Vegan, and Sheeze. Veggie is the most commonly available product, but it is not entirely dairy-free. It is lactose-free, which is good for people with allergies, but it contains casein, which is a milk protein.

As with everything, be sure to check ingredients. Many non-dairy products are made using hydrogenated oil, which is another product to avoid. On the whole, my advice would be to just skip cheese entirely, be it dairy-free or not. If, however, you just can't live without it, then the dairy-free alternatives are your best bet.

Other Dairy Alternatives
Sour Cream: There are alternatives commercially available, but you'll have to go to a health food store to find them. Be sure to check the ingredients, as many are made with hydrogenated oil. As with cheese, they are usually a concoction of processed ingredients, so be aware of what you're buying. You can also try recipes for homemade sour cream, such as this one. I haven't tried it yet, but I intend to.

Cream Cheese: Similar to sour cream, there are dairy-free alternatives for sale, but you will only find them at health food stores. The most popular is Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese. It's tofu based, however, which means it has a lot of soy ingredients. As with sour cream, it is also possible to make your own at home. See here for a discussion of various recipes, including some non-tofu based ones.

Yogurt: The only real yogurt replacements available are soy and tofu based, such as Silk or Whole Soy. Personally, I'm not entirely comfortable with soy products, so I'll be avoiding these, too.

Conclusion
This post ended up being longer than I planned, but I think I covered everything. As you can see, there are a lot of dairy-free alternatives to common milk-based products. Some are better and healthier than others, however, so tread carefully. Homemade options are always going to be the best, and likely cheapest, but they do require a bit of work. Going dairy-free isn't as daunting as it sounds and your body will certainly thank you for it!

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