by Patricia Chuey, MSc., RD, FDC
Best known for its bone-boosting calcium and vitamin D content, milk also provides protein, carbohydrate and fat along with other vitamins and minerals. An average 8-ounce serving of cow’s milk provides approximately 100 calories. It remains a quality staple and all dairy milk produced in Canada is free from added hormones. For growing kids, 2-4 daily servings of milk or milk alternatives are recommended depending on age. For adults, 2-3 daily servings. For their calcium, potassium and magnesium content, milk products are also encouraged in the healthy DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).
Not That Long Ago
It wasn’t that long ago that when you went to the store to pick up milk you had a choice of whole milk (3.25%), 2%, 1% or skim milk. The percentages reflect the amount of milk fat (%mf) or butterfat (%bf) in the bottle or carton. Those interested in reducing fat and calorie intake opt for skim or 1% while those wanting a richer taste or needing the higher fat content choose whole milk. For children under age 2, it remains important to choose whole milk for its higher fat content.
In addition to regular dairy milk, there were a few other choices for those with allergies and intolerances with the availability of goat’s milk and lactose-free milk. Chocolate milk has long been an option as well – and one marketed as a good sports recovery beverage for kids. Anyone remember Vico? (That is what they call chocolate milk in Saskatchewan when I was growing up.) However, chocolate milk is much higher in sugar than white milk. You can try making your own lower sugar version (recipe) if you want to enjoy chocolate milk occasionally. And we can’t forget powdered milk, once a budget-friendly staple and option for those with limited refrigeration space.
Although common in China starting 2000 years ago, soy drinks initially became an option in North America for those allergic to milk protein, intolerant to lactose or following a vegetarian diet. It’s made from soy beans and is plant-based. Original versions of soy drinks were similar in calories to dairy milk but much lower in protein, calcium and vitamin D until they began to be fortified with these nutrients.
A Rapidly Expanding Category
In 2018, the milk category reflects tremendous innovation, not only in types of milk, but also plant-based beverages and formats ranging from glass bottles and cartons to UHT (ultra high temperature) shelf stable options. “Can you grab some milk while you’re out?” is no longer answerable with just “yes” given the available choices. The milk section is also not only in the refrigerated dairy aisle but also in the non-perishable natural foods grocery aisle, the beverage aisle and other sections of the store.
Depending on why you’re buying milk or a plant-based beverage – for example, to feed growing children, to make a classic pudding, to try a new vegan recipe or to simply add to your coffee – will determine which product you buy. If choosing non-dairy drinks as a protein, calcium, vitamin A and D source, be careful to read the Nutrition Facts table on the label. Check that the one you select is a suitable replacement for dairy milk as some lack nutritional balance.
Today’s Milk Options
Milk is an example of a grocery store category that is exploding in response to consumers who aren’t only looking to quench their thirst but for specific functionality in their milk or plant-based beverage that relates to their overall lifestyle. Some of the options currently available include:
Cow’s Milk – available in whole, 2%, 1%, skim and lactose-free. Individual portions also come in flavours like plain, chocolate, orange, banana and strawberry. Whether dairy milk or plant-based drinks, the addition of fruity or chocolate flavours generally makes the product significantly higher in sugar. Sugary milk beverages should be reserved for occasional treats only.
Goat’s Milk – available in 1%, 2% and 3.5%. Nutrtionally similiar to cow’s milk.
Soy Beverage – available in plain/original and various flavours. Read labels and opt for the lowest sugar choice.
Almond Beverage – the first nut-based drink to become mainstream. Choose one that is fortified with added nutrients otherwise it can simply be almond-flavoured water. Almonds are the most widely consumed nut and are naturally a great source of vitamin E.
Coconut Beverage – traditionally used in Thai and other South East Asian cuisines, coconut beverage is significantly higher in fat and calories than cow’s milk. It supplies vitamins and minerals although not in the same ratios to make it a suitable replacement for drinking dairy milk.
Cashew Beverage – a nut beverage option that is becoming more popular. Read labels as there can be significant nutrient differences across brands.
Potato, Hemp, Rice and Oat Beverages– options for those with a dairy and/or nut allergy. Read labels carefully to determine the quality of the drink especially if you’re looking for it to be a protein, vitamin and mineral source. Unless you are simply using a small amount to replace dairy milk in baking for an allergic person. Oat drinks show promise for their health-promoting plant chemicals, fibre and nutrients.
And There’s More
Not yet widely available but starting to pop up are other nut or seed-based milk alternatives including peanut, sesame, flax, sunflower, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut and tiger nut along with drinks from quinoa, corn, spelt, teff, amaranth and other grains. We may also soon see lupin beverages, from the Latin American legume. None of these currently fully replicate the texture, appearance, flavor and nutritional value of cow or goat’s milk.
One challenge for innovative manufacturers will be countering the beany flavor of some plant-based drinks. However, as fibre– and nutrient-rich pulse flour and other legume-based foods become more mainstream our palates will become familiar with these flavours. For grain, legume and seed growers, the future in the plant-based milk drink category shows promise.
Variety, moderation and balance are three healthy eating principles that have stood the test of time and scientific rigor. Just as many of us have a variety of cooking oils on hand in our pantry, it will no doubt soon become common to have a variety of milks and plant-based beverages on hand as well.