Milk substitutes have shot up in popularity over the last few years.
They’ve become a multi-billion dollar industry. I’ve talked before about the pros and cons of these alternatives, especially since they’re not all equally good for you.
But now there are more pieces to the puzzle…
Continued below. . .
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Nutritional Enlightenment: Why milks
are definitely not created equal
Cow’s milk is a longtime cultural staple, especially among people of European descent. It provides a large quantity of nutrients, including vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B12.
However, there’s not much of value in cow’s milk that you can’t get from other sources. Besides that, many people are lactose- or casein-intolerant. Lactose intolerance is most common among people of Asian, African or Native American descent. However, it can affect anyone.
This is where milk substitutes come in. They’re great for anyone who can’t eat dairy products. They’re also preferable if you’ve chosen the vegan lifestyle or have ethical concerns over the treatment of animals.
But milk substitutes fall short in the realm of nutrition, at least when compared to cow’s milk. In fact, when my able researchers first looked into them, I was appalled by how bad these products can be. Yet too many people assume that because something is called a “milk substitute” it’s a substitute for all the good nutrients in milk.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do many of the popular milk substitutes lack nutrition, but they also come with their own problems. Several of them provide a lot of empty calories – and not much else. Many brands add sugar to their formulations, cancer’s best friend.
The one to really be aware of, though, is almond milk, which currently leads the pack in terms of milk substitute popularity…
Are alternative milks junk food in disguise?
Almond milk sales grew a staggering 40% last year alone. This is partly because people prefer the taste to some of the other milk alternatives. Then there’s the fact that almonds are one of the healthiest, most protein-heavy snacks you can have. It stands to reason that getting a dose of almonds in your milk is a good thing, right?
Well, no. It would be a no-brainer if almond milk had a decent quantity of almonds in each serving. But the reality is that most almond milk has very few almonds, but it DOES have a lot of added sugar.
Some researchers estimate barely a handful of almonds is in each half-gallon carton of almond milk – about two percent of that beverage. The rest is mostly water. This explains why a cup of almond milk is around 30 calories, while a handful of whole almonds is closer to 160 calories.
Rice milk has a similar problem. There’s nothing particularly healthy about it; it’s merely filtered water, rice, and added vitamins. Rice is just a carbohydrate, and a high-glycemic one at that (meaning it’s quickly converted to blood sugar.)
Moreover it contains a potential hazard in the form of arsenic. After all, rice tends to accumulate ten times more arsenic from ground water than other grains. According to the Environmental Working Group, “Arsenic levels in rice milk often surpassed 10 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in drinking water.”
The other milk substitutes aren’t without their own challenges. Soy milk has the highest level of nutrition after cow’s milk, but comes with the added risk of controversial phyto-hormones – plant substances that mimic human hormones, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on whose opinion you believe.
Just for the record, I just started drinking soy milk (I read the label to make sure there’s nothing in it but soy beans and water). I finally decided the health benefits as demonstrated in published studies may outweigh the risks, which have never been proven. And I have a health condition, enlarged prostate, which should particularly benefit from the nutrients in soy. Fingers crossed, here. I wish I could be more definite about the pros and cons.
Then there’s coconut milk. It’s rich in antioxidants but contains a lot of fat. As such, this doesn’t bother me. Coconut oil is good for you.
All of this underscores the importance of doing your research when it comes to your beverage of choice. I’d caution against considering any of these drinks a substitute for regular milk. Rather, they’re just different beverages with different pros and cons.
Speaking of cons, there’s one other thing you should be aware of when it comes to some of these “milks”…
Carcinogenic additives on top of everything else!
In a lot of alternative milk beverages, an additive called carrageenan is present. This is true for many almond, coconut, and soy milks.
Carrageenan is a food additive meant to stabilize and thicken various foods. Based on that description alone, you can see how it might make a thin, watery milk substitute more “milky.”
Carrageenan adds texture and keeps liquids from separating, but it has no nutritional value. It’s derived from edible red seaweed, which sounds healthy and natural, but is in reality an indigestible polysaccharide.
Mixed research over the years has confused policymakers like those at the FDA, so they permit this additive. But enough studies now point to its danger that my advice is to avoid it. Problem is, you find it just about everywhere and especially in milk substitute products.
Here’s a quick primer to help you protect yourself. Carrageenan breaks down into a degraded form called poligeenan. Poligeenan is not approved for use in food, especially in view of multiple animal studies that show it causes inflammation of the GI tract, higher rates of intestinal lesions, and even cancerous tumors.
Poligeenan is also a potential “tumor activator” — used specifically in animal studies to induce inflammation and grow cancers as quickly as possible. This doesn’t sound like something I’d want to eat.
It doesn’t matter that food manufacturers supposedly use the safe, larger molecule of carrageenan. In reality, they are allowed to have up to five percent degraded poligeenan in carrageenan used in food. Yet, some tests show carrageenan manufacturers have produced products with poligeenan levels as high as 25%.
Then there’s the fact that carrageenan breaks down into poligeenan inside your body as you digest, so controlling its presence in the product is useless.
Add to that the data from Dr. Joanne Tobacman, faculty member at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and one of the foremost researchers on carrageenan and digestive health. She says that both forms of the additive are inflammatory. Two of Dr. Tobacman’s studies, published in 2012 and 2014, show exactly how carrageenan contributes to colon cancer.
To the shame of the health food industry, the substance is often found not only in almond, coconut, and soy milk, but also in soy products, chocolate, and vegetarian products. You’ll even see it in low-sugar or low-fat dairy products, where food processors employ it to make them taste “fuller.” What’s more, you’ll come across it in beverages like nutritional shakes, where it’s used to keep mixtures from separating.
Your best bet is to check labels for carrageenan. Also, be aware of its many pseudonyms:
- Red marine algae
- Carrageen, or other various spellings, like carrageenin
- Chondrus crispus or chondrus extract
- Euchema species
- Irish Moss algae or extract
On the plus side, two major brands of almond milk, Blue Diamond and WhiteWave (makers of Silk and So Delicious), recently pledged to remove carrageenan from their formulations. It’s all thanks to a lawsuit brought against them for false nutritional claims.
Use them in moderation… or make your own
After first looking into the nutritional value of milk substitutes back in Issue #482, I started feeling wary about them. Now I worry that some of them are kind of junky.
If you’re interested, there are recipes for making your own almond milk.
Should you decide to stick with any of these beverages for use on a daily basis, make sure you increase your calcium in other ways. Tofu, tempeh, edamame, collard greens, spinach, okra, broccoli, and arugula all offer decent amounts of calcium. Canned fish, dried figs, and fortified orange juice are other good alternatives for calcium.