I grew up drinking huge amounts of milk. I can't remember a time that it wasn't a vital part of my diet. I credited my milk consumption with an incredible growth spurt in Middle School. I was certain that my milk and saltines "diet" prevented me from gaining the dreaded Freshman Fifteen when I went to college. Through the parties, showers, and wedding receptions I attended through my twenties, I couldn't imagine life without the cheese tray. When I moved into my present home, one of the most attractive parts about the location was that it is placed an equal distance from Dairy Queen and a frozen yogurt place, with Rita's and Haagen-Dazs just another short block away.
When I became a vegetarian 8 years ago, in the course of educating myself, I thought I might give up dairy. I was aware of the horrific conditions of dairy farms and the mistreatment of cows, but for some reason, it didn't occur to me that the same thoughts would apply to goats. I considered forsaking cows' milk for goats' milk, but it would have been a very cost-prohibitive undertaking when I was fresh out of college and working two jobs to afford a place of my own. Also, a friend pointed out that the goats are not treated any better than the cows and you're still robbing another species of the milk meant for its babies.
Recently, my sister started having the same thoughts, but is also wary of soymilk due to the conflicting research about its nutritive qualities. To answer her queries, I wrote her a novel of an email, and as I was typing, it occurred to me that a "milk" round-up might be a beneficial post.
The first point I wish to make, before a consumer review of the various non-dairy "milks" available, is this: critics of soy most frequently point to the prevalence of phytoestrogens present in soy. Before I held the position I currently hold at my workplace, I had the privilege of interacting with a broad spectrum of our clientele. One man shared his disgust with our program by telling me there was too much soy in our program and that soy is "what's turnin' men into women these days." What Cletus the Cowboy probably does not realize is that when he drinks his milk, he is drinking the breastmilk of a mother animal (of another species) which is meant to nurture her baby. This breastmilk is rife with her hormones, including more estrogen than the phytoestrogens you'll find in soy.
So, if you aren't "supposed" to consume dairy from a cow or a goat, what to do? There is a wide variety of non-dairy "milks" available now: soy, almond, rice, coconut, even hemp! I have tried almost all of them and will say this: once you break the dairy habit, you will find that you only occasionally wish to use a dairy substitute. Soy milk and hemp milk are the best for protein - hemp milk actually provides the best nutrition I've found so far. Almond and rice milk are low in calories and have a more neutral taste than soy, but are not terribly nutritious - they're really more for "show" so to speak. Coconut milk has a slightly sweet aftertaste and is undeniably coconut milk. It is thick - if soymilk resembles 2% milk and rice milk resembles skim, coconut milk is definitely whole milk. The thickness is vaguely disturbing - I had some trouble eating a bowl of cereal using it, but I think it could be beneficial for use as an ingredient.
Silk soymilk is available in many nutritional configurations and flavors. They use only non-GMO soybeans, battling the allegation than soybean farming is as dangerous for the environment as cattle-ranching. The unsweetened soymilk has only 80 calories for an 8oz serving and 4g of healthy fats. It packs 7g of protein and half the B12 needed for a day, in addition to other vitamins and nutrients. For complete nutritional information, click here.
Tempt has a variety of dairy substitutes. I am completely addicted to the frozen desserts and plan to try the hempmilk once I get through the coconut milk currently in my fridge. You can see my analysis of their "ice cream" and why everyone should eat it by clicking here. Hemp milk is a great source of fatty acids and other helpful nutrients. Mandi at Chic Vegan just posted an article on the benefits of hemp. I can't share any personal opinions of the taste or texture of hemp milk, but hemp makes one heck of a soft and comfy skirt!
Turtle Mountain has recently launched a line of coconut milk beverages. Having tried the unsweetened "flavor," I can say that it has the thickness of coconut milk with far less than half the calories and fat. I'll admit I'm having a little trouble adjusting to the whole milk-like consistency, but I'm willing to see it through because coconut milk is full of Medium Chain Fatty Acids that are not common in the average American diet. Although it is lower in calories than soymilk, it is also deficient in protein and potassium in relation. For complete nutrition information, click here.
Almond Breeze has a slightly creamy and pleasantly neutral taste. The vanilla flavor is wonderful for making oatmeal or lightening coffee. Almond milk is low in calories and fat, but also has only 1g protein in each 8oz serving. You will, however, get half of your recommended vitamin E and 30% of your daily calcium needs met in this easy-to-drink dairy substitute. This is the one "milk" I would actually drink as a beverage - the others have been relegated to moistening cereal/oatmeal or as an ingredient in mashed potatoes and cookies. For complete nutritional information, click here.
Rice Dream is actually the heaviest hitter in terms of calories, and honestly, it provides very little nutritional value for that punch. It is low in fat, but high in carbs and sugar. I also have found that the texture is less pleasing than other "milks" and it seems more watery. This would be fine for your breakfast cereal, but I wouldn't drink it as a beverage unless you are also attached to the taste and texture of skim milk.
Hopefully, this little review will be helpful to anyone sitting on the fence, or at the very least, will encourage you to expand your milk-consumption horizons a little. Please feel free to leave comments about your favorite variation and/or brand so we can all learn from your experience!