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Here's the truth about 'healthy’ milk alternatives

Cashew milk, anyone?

Image: ednl via Flickr/Creative Commons

STROLL INTO ANY upmarket café and you might be surprised to find plain old milk as only one of the available beverage options to add to your coffee.

You can try soy milk, almond milk, even cashew or coconut milk.

The options are a little confusing, but are any of them actually healthier?

Not really.

Here’s a quick look at the nutritional value of some of the most popular — and often far more expensive — milk alternatives.

Almond milk

Almond Milk, Blue Diamond Source: JeepersMedia via Flickr/Creative Commons

By themselves, almonds are protein powerhouses: A typical serving of the nuts has 160 calories and 6 grams of protein.

But a typical glass of almond milk, by volume, is just about 2% almonds and contains almost no protein.

So while the “milk” only has about 30 calories — good news if you’re looking to lose weight — it packs just 1 gram of protein, which won’t feed your muscles or keep you feeling satiated.

Plus, all the vitamins inside, from potassium to vitamins A and D, are added during the manufacturing process.

Soy milk

shutterstock_213557500 Source: Shutterstock/Amarita

Although typically pricier than regular milk, soy milk is a great source of protein (8 grams per serving) and fiber, is relatively low in fat, and has 6 grams of sugar.

Some have cited potential fears of soy having “estrogen-like” activities in the body, but studies don’t support this.

One “unusual” case from 2008, for example, described a man who’d experienced feminizing bodily changes after he reported drinking 3 quarts of soy milk each day. (When he quit soy, his symptoms disappeared).

But there’s likely no reason for concern: Even at higher-than-average soy consumption rates, there is no evidence suggesting that men should stop eating or drinking the stuff.

What the studies do show is that moderate soy consumption has been linked with lower rates of developing prostate cancer.

Like almond milk, most of soy milk’s calcium is added during the manufacturing process (a process known as fortifying), along with its B vitamins.

Cashew milk

BluePrint Cashew Milk Source: JeepersMedia via Flickr/Creative Commons

While a bit higher in calories than almond milk (60 per cup compared with 30), cashew milk has the same amount of protein — just 1 gram— and 7 grams of sugar.

And, like almond and soy milks, its calcium and vitamins are added.

Yet it’s the priciest of the milk alternatives.

Coconut milk

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shutterstock_244346554 Source: Shutterstock/S_Photo

As opposed to coconut water, the clear liquid found in a young green coconut, coconut milk is the liquid that’s produced when the meat of a brown coconut is smashed up.

Thanks to its high oil content, coconut milk has a creamy, thick color and buttery taste, but it’s also very high in fat.

A cup of coconut milk has roughly 550 calories (about four times the amount in regular cow’s milk or soy milk), a whopping 57 grams of fat (close to the amount the average adult should consume in a day), and 51 grams of saturated fat (more than twice that amount).

It also has about 8 grams of sugar.

Coconut milk has 6 grams of protein, about the same as a glass of cow’s milk or soy, and some vitamins, but little calcium.

Good old-fashioned cow’s milk

Melkkoeien bij de Staalwijklaan Source: ednl via Flickr/Creative Commons

Cow’s milk is the only beverage on this list that qualifies as actual milk; the rest are sourced from a plant.

Of all the “milks”, cow’s milk has the most naturally-occurring calcium and has the same amount of protein as soy milk, at 8 grams per serving. It does have a bit more sugar than cashew and soy milks, however, at about 12 grams per serving.

It’s a fairly good source of several other nutrients, too, including B vitamins. Like the over beverages, manufacturers add some ingredients, like vitamin D, to cow’s milk to help us absorb its calcium.

And while whole milk is high in fat and saturated fat, low-fat and skim milks provide almost all of the protein without the extra fat.

- Erin Brodwin

Read: Stop the world – fake milk is on the way >

More: Without milk quotas, what will happen to the price of a pint of milk? >

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