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Choosing the Optimal Non-Dairy Milk Alternative: A Guide to Selecting the Healthiest Option

Ten years ago, the non-dairy options available at your local coffee shop likely boiled down to soy or almond milk. Fast forward to today, and non-dairy aficionados have a smorgasbord of choices, including the beloved oat milk and alternatives like pea, hemp, cashew, and yes, even banana milk.

The market for non-dairy alternatives is expanding rapidly – a food and drink analyst informed The New York Times that plant-based milk is projected to account for 30% of total milk sales by the end of 2026.

While some individuals turn to non-dairy milk due to allergies or intolerances, others are drawn to its reduced environmental footprint. Compared to dairy milk, non-dairy alternatives require less land and water and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

But what’s the healthiest option among these milk alternatives?

According to registered dietitian Jamie Nadeau, soy milk takes the crown as the healthiest non-dairy alternative because of its nutritional parity with dairy milk. Dairy milk is a significant source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients, boasting 8 grams of protein per cup, while soy milk clocks in at just over 6 grams. Oat milk typically contains around 3 grams per cup, almond milk slightly over 1 gram, and coconut milk even less.

Fortified soy milk matches cow’s milk in terms of calcium and vitamin D content, making it a valuable component of your daily dairy intake, as confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Additionally, soy milk generally offers a lower carbohydrate profile compared to other non-dairy alternatives, provided it isn’t laden with added sugars. Coconut milk also stands out as a low-carb option.

However, if the taste of soy isn’t to your liking, how do you navigate the array of alternatives to find a delicious and nutritious option?

When it comes to occasional additions like a splash in your coffee, Nadeau suggests prioritizing taste. But if non-dairy milk is a primary source of calcium for you, scrutinize labels and opt for a fortified variety. Brands vary widely in their formulations, with some boasting minimal ingredients and others packing in added sugars and flavorings.

Nadeau underscores that almond, rice, coconut, cashew, and oat milks are all quite similar nutritionally. Hence, the key consideration lies in identifying options with minimal added sugars.

Now, onto a common query: Is soy milk beneficial for you?

Absolutely. Soy serves as a complete protein source, furnishing all nine essential amino acids that our bodies require but cannot produce independently. Additionally, soy is rich in B vitamins, fiber, potassium, and magnesium, and exhibits a modest yet clinically significant cholesterol-lowering effect.

Concerns about soy’s estrogen content often arise, given its isoflavone content, which functions akin to human estrogen but with milder effects. Despite internet claims linking soy to breast growth or cancer risk, the American Cancer Society asserts no evidence of harm, particularly concerning breast cancer risk. In fact, research even suggests a potential protective effect of soy consumption against breast cancer among Asian women.

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