Because many people can’t tolerate cow’s milk or just want a change of pace, alternative milks can fill the gap. You might even hear the occasional soy latte ordered at Starbucks Coffee or a rice milk mocha at Four Seasons.
One of the main reasons people use milk alternatives is a condition called lactose intolerance, where the necessary intestinal enzymes to break down the lactose (milk sugar) in cow’s milk are lacking. It can cause uncomfortable intestinal gas and bloating.
Many lactose-intolerant people can handle small amounts of regular cow’s milk, while others use lactose-reduced milk (commonly knows as Lactaid). The missing enzyme, lactase, also can be added to milk in the form of pills or drops (Lactrase, Lactaid, Dairy Ease) to reduce the lactose content.
Other people are allergic to the protein in milk and must avoid it entirely. Some doctors also believe milk protein can aggravate immune system diseases, such as allergies and arthritis. And strict vegetarians, or “vegans,” shun all animal products.
The new breed of alternative milks - technically called nondairy beverages - are made from such ingredients as soy, rice, oats, almonds, barley, triticale and amaranth.
To make them, the grains, nuts or legumes are ground and heated. Enzymes are added to convert some of the starch to simple sugars. The resulting liquid is then strained and mixed with filtered water and sweeteners such as malted cereal extract. Sometimes natural-fiber thickeners like carrageenan and/or guar gum are added for a smoother, fat-like texture.
You won’t find most alternative milks mingling with cow’s milk in the refrigerator section. They’re usually in the health-food aisle, stacked in one-liter (four-cup) or one-cup lined paper cartons - like the ultra-high-temperature cow’s milk used by campers. No refrigeration is necessary until after opening and they will keep fresh for five to seven days.
Depending on the store, a one-liter carton costs anywhere from $1.50 to $3 - about twice the price of regular milk. Therefore, most people don’t drink alternative milks by the cow’smilk-mustache full. They tend to be used on hot and cold cereals, for baking muffins, breads, cookies and cakes, and as the liquid base for fruit smoothies.
As stated on the label, alternative milks can be used “cup for cup in place of milk.” When cooking or baking with them, their extra sweetness may lessen the need for sweetener in your recipe - especially if you’re using a flavored alternative milk. All are sweeter than cow’s milk, with plain or original formulas less sweet than the vanilla, carob or chocolate-flavored varieties.
Alternative milks vary in taste and texture. The rice milks I sampled seemed pale and had lingering aftertastes. However, Eden produces a rice-and-soy beverage that has a smooth texture with less aftertaste.
Pacific Foods of Oregon makes a multigrain nondairy beverage that uses an interesting array of ingredients including oat groats, triticale, brown rice, amaranth, and soy beans. It has a nutty flavor, similar to low-fat soy milk.
Like cow’s milk, the lower the fat content, the thinner the consistency. When the fat content of alternative milk dips below 2 grams per eight-ounce serving, the milk can seem painfully thin. But while the fat in cow’s milk is mostly saturated fat, which drives up cholesterol levels, alternative milks (excluding coconut milk) contain more healthful fats like canola oil.
On regular milk’s behalf, a couple of new nonfat cow’s milks are available that claim to have the same texture as 2 percent milk: Skim Delux from Wilcox Family Farms, and Say Yes! To emulate a fat-like texture, Skim Delux uses a cellulose gel and Say Yes! uses carrageenan. They are both surprisingly good.
It’s important not to use alternative milks as an infant formula replacement, because they vary considerably in vitamin, mineral, protein, fat and calorie content. Some alternative milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, while others are lacking. Be sure to read the labels to get the most nutrition per serving.
The best-tasting and most nutritious alternative milk I sampled, and the only one requiring refrigeration before opening, is White Wave Chocolate Silk (there’s also a plain version). It’s fortified with 30 percent of the recommended daily allowance for both calcium and vitamin D, plus added vitamin B12 and riboflavin. Cow’s milk typically provides 25 to 30 percent of the RDA for calcium and 25 percent for Vitamin D.
The sodium content of alternative milks varies from 50 to 140 milligrams per cup, compared to 120-140 milligrams for cow’s milk.
If you’re using milk alternatives, try to find a variety that’s fortified with 25 percent of the RDA for both calcium and vitamin D if you aren’t also using cow’s milk. Like most foods, you might prefer the low-fat versions over the nonfat. The healthful fat and variety of choices make alternative milks an adventurous option.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Craig T. Hunt The Spokesman-Review