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Poring over facts about milk: cow's, goat's, soy, almond, rice and hemp

Some are richer in protein, others in essential fatty acids. There are pros and cons to all.

October 19, 2009|Elena Conis

Soy milk presents its own digestibility challenges, Kazaks says. The milk contains high levels of oligosaccharides, carbohydrates that are hard for the body to break down. "It can really cause a lot of gas in some people," she says.

Almond milk

"With almond milk, it's more about what you don't get" than what you do, says Sam Cunningham, an independent food scientist and consultant specializing in nuts, who helped develop almond milk for Sacramento-based Blue Diamond Growers as an employee of the almond processor in the 1990s.

Like soy milk, almond milk contains zero cholesterol. It's free of saturated fats, so it's a healthful option for people with, or at risk for, heart disease. It doesn't contain lactose, so it's an option for people with lactose intolerance. And it's even lower in calories and total fat than soy milk: a glass contains just 60 calories and 2.5 grams of fat to soy milk's 100 calories and 4 fat grams.

But although almonds, among nuts, are a good source of calcium and protein, almond milk's calcium and protein levels don't compare to the levels in cow's, goat's or soy milks. A glass of almond milk provides just 1 gram of protein. Some brands provide up to 20% of the daily recommended calcium intake (about 10% less than the other milks), but other brands provide none.

Almonds are also a good source of iron, riboflavin, vitamin E and some essential fatty acids. A cup of the ground-up nuts contains more than 11 grams of omega-6 fats (but very few omega-3s).

In recent years, several studies have hinted at a link between nut consumption and lower blood cholesterol and a reduced risk of heart disease. Since 2003, the Food and Drug Administration has allowed almonds (and other nuts) to bear the claim that eating 1.5 ounces of nuts daily, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce risk of heart disease.

Still, nuts are one thing -- almond milk is another. The fraction of almond milk that's actually comprised of finely blended almonds varies between products and can be minimal, Kazaks says. In many commercially available almond milks, almonds are the second or third ingredient, after water and sweeteners. (The same is true for many soy milks as well.) So despite the high vitamin E and omega-6 content of almonds, a glass of almond milk may contain none of the vitamin and just 300 to 600 milligrams of the omega-6s.

Almond milk is a fine alternative for people allergic to cow's and soy milks, Jaffe's Sicherer says, but almonds pose their own allergenicity hazards. Allergies to tree nuts, including almonds, are among the top allergies in the population, affecting 0.2% of children. And although cow's and soy milk allergies are often outgrown, nut allergies are more likely to persist.

Rice milk

Like almond milk, rice milk's main advantages are what it doesn't contain. It is free of cholesterol and saturated fat. It doesn't contain lactose. Allergies to rice are rare.

In fact, rice milk manufacturers commonly promote their product as safe for people with any of a number of allergies or intolerances -- including cow's milk, soy and nut allergies, as well as lactose and gluten intolerance. (Gluten, found in wheat and other cereal grains, is not present in any of the milks mentioned here.)

Rice milk, like soy and almond milk, is formulated to contain levels of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D similar to (albeit lower than) those in cow's milk. But it is not a good source of protein, with just 0.67 grams per serving, and often contains more calories than almond or soy milk: about 113 calories per cup. Its vitamin E levels exceed that of cow's, goat's and soy milk but don't compare with that of some almond milks.

One more thing rice milk doesn't have: flavor in need of masking with sweeteners. "It's a very mild-flavored product," Corvus Blue's Shelke says.

Hemp milk

Among plant-based milks, hemp milk is unique, and not just because the cannabis plant it's made from poses legal challenges for farmers.

A glass of hemp milk contains the same number of calories as soy milk, one-third to one-half of the protein, but 50% more fat: 5 to 6 grams. However, most of the fats in hemp milk are omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, key for nervous system function and healthy skin and hair. Certain omega-3 and omega-6 fats also appear to reduce inflammation and lower blood lipid levels.

Plant oils typically have an excess of omega-6 fats relative to omega-3s -- and the hemp seed is no exception. A cup of hemp milk (which is made from the "nut" of the hemp seed but can also contain some of the hull) often provides about 1 gram of omega-3s and 3 to 4 grams of omega-6s. Still, that level of omega-3s is high for plants, making hemp milk a useful source of them -- especially given that American diets typically provide too few omega-3 fats and too many omega-6s.

In fact, some nutrition experts recommend a dietary ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s of between 1:1 and 1:3, a ratio that occurs naturally in hemp milk.

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