Whether you're lactose-intolerant, follow a vegan diet, or just want to switch it up, non-dairy milks (also known as alternative milks, or “alt milks”) make a tasty and versatile addition to try. There are many varieties on the market today—we aren’t limited to just soy milk anymore. While the milks may come across as straightforward, here's some important label lingo to know:
• BPA-free You may associate this term with cans, but in fact, the Tetra Paks that dairy-free milks are packaged in are often lined with BPA. This helps maintain freshness, and the lining is slippery, so there is no residue left in the package when you pour. However, some health risk concerns have been raised about this chemical, so look for packages marked BPA-free.
FOR MORE ON BPA, READ "ASK THE DOC: PLASTIC PANIC"
• Carageenan This is a sea vegetable that is used to slightly thicken and stabilize non-dairy milks. It is used in very small amounts, but some people don’t want any additives in their products, and some have sensitivities to it. Making your own milk from scratch—or choosing non-dairy milks made without carageenan—can solve this problem.
• Organic This is especially important for soy milks. Over 80% of the soy production in the U.S. is GMO, and before we have solid scientific evidence of its effect on our health in the long run, it’s best to avoid it. If a product is certified organic, then you can rest assured there are no GMO ingredients in it.
• Protein levels Different non-dairy milks have different levels of protein. Soy has the highest, at around 9 grams per serving, while rice milk has almost none. Protein needs vary per individual, so check the nutritional panel if you’re watching your intake.
Ready to go shopping? Here are some alt milks you’re likely to find at the market:
• Soy Milk It’s high in plant-based protein, but be sure to buy organic and unsweetened.
• Hemp Milk This variety has around 5 grams of protein per serving and has high levels of good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids.
• Oat Milk This one’s high in fiber but tends to be high in sugar too—buy unsweetened.
• Almond Milk This milk has about 2 grams of protein per serving. While almonds are high in protein, packaged milk is mostly water.
• Rice Milk The amount of protein in rice milk is negligible, but it’s a great option for those with gluten or nut allergies.
Tip Using your milk beyond smoothies and cereal? No problem. In baked goods, non-dairy options can be substituted seamlessly. For cream sauces and ice creams, making your own milks is best. Most commercially made milks are very thin, similar to skim milk consistency. They do not thicken when reduced and if used in ice creams, they crystallize and result in an icy texture.
Meet the author: Barbara Rich is a full-time chef instructor at Natural Gourmet Institute. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Miss., and a culinary degree from California Culinary Academy. Before teaching, she worked at Cardwells Restaurant in St. Louis, Zuni Café in San Francisco, and Danal in New York City. She is also an avid athlete, and has competed in half-ironman triathlons, long-distance open water swim races, and trail races, including the Trans Rockies 6-Day Ultra.