Dave Shaw

Performance nutritionist, clinical dietitian and health expert, Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Understanding milk alternatives

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Getting enough calcium is important for good bone health.Photo / Thinkstock
Getting enough calcium is important for good bone health.Photo / Thinkstock

Cow's milk has had its fair share of time in the spotlight recently, and for good reason.

Claims about high amounts of circulating hormones, poor processing techniques and potential for light to destroy its nutrients cause confusion. This has driven more and more people to go for a dairy-free diet.

However, cutting out food groups means removing sources of valuable nutrients from your diet. Milk - one of our main source of calcium - is essential for bone growth and health.

The Ministry of Health recommends 1000mg of calcium a day - that's two-and-a-half cups of milk. As we get older, our requirements increase to prevent the onset of brittle bone disease, osteoporosis.

Unless you're lactose intolerant, allergic to cow's milk or have cultural beliefs preventing you from drinking the stuff then there's no reason for you to remove it from your diet.

But if you do cut out cow's milk, then I encourage you to replace it with an alternative:

Soy Milk

The taste of this popular alternative varies between brands. It tends to be slightly sweeter with a more 'cereally' taste than cow's milk. Soy also contains as much protein as cow's milk and it has been fortified with calcium. You can also drink it if you're lactose or gluten intolerant, vegan or vegetarian. Every cup of soy milk has about 400mg of calcium, so aim to drink two-and-a-half to three cups a day.

Almond Milk

One of the most recent additions to the alternative group - this nut milk fits nicely into the diets of Paleo enthusiasts and has even been fortified with calcium. It has less protein than soy and cow's milk but makes up for it with a nutty, sweet taste. Since it's made from almonds, a hard to grow crop, it can be a little pricey. Like soy milk, it's safe for vegans and those with an intolerance to gluten and lactose. A cup of almond milk has about 188mg of calcium, so you'll need to drink just over five cups a day to reach quota.

Rice Milk

Rice milk tends to be very thin and watery, but with a subtle sweetness that varies across brands. It's lower in protein than cow's milk, but contains considerably more calcium than nut alternatives. However, keep an eye on the sugar content, this milk alternative has close to double the sugar of other varieties. Every cup of rice milk has about 300mg of calcium, so aim to drink three to four cups a day.

Oat Milk

This isn't the most popular alternative, but it's a great replacement to cow's milk, especially if you're vegan or lactose intolerant. With a hint of sweetness and creaminess, oat milk is a delicious source of calcium. Unfortunately, if you have coeliac disease this isn't for you. Every cup of oat milk has about 300mg of calcium, so aim to drink three to four cups a day.

Coconut Milk

Everyone's talking about coconut goods at the moment - milk, oil, cream. There are claims they can solve everything from arthritis to cardiovascular disease. There's talk that coconut milk contains a high content of medium chain fatty acids that are metabolised differently than other saturated fats. The truth is, there isn't enough evidence to back the benefits, and a more likely outcome is that you'll pack on the pounds from the additional fat you're eating. Plus, you're missing out on calcium altogether if you're using coconut milk as a dairy replacement.

Dave Shaw is a NZ registered dietitian and nutritionist. Follow him on Facebook
and Twitter.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

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