Not Milk?

Photography by: Brian Leatart
Not Milk?

Creamy, rich, satisfying--it was everything I expected in a milkshake. Except for one esssential detail: The "milk" came from almonds, not a cow.

True, I was in a cafe in Berkeley, Calif., where such novelties are commonplace. But I've since discovered that nondairy milks--derived from soybeans, nuts, or grains--are readily available almost anywhere in the country, from mom-and-pop health-food stores to chain supermarkets.

If the soaring sales for dairy alternatives are any indication, consumers are lapping them up. But are these "new" milks better for you than classic cow juice? Can you cook with them? And what do they taste like, anyway?

Three Milks, No Mooing
"Soy milk and other vegetable- and grain-based milks can be quite nutritious," says Jennifer Wilkins, Ph.D., R.D., a food and society policy fellow in nutritional sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Because they don't come from animals, they have no cholesterol, and they're higher in monounsaturated fats and lower in saturated fats than cow's milk."

Of the foremost types of nondairy milks, the most popular is soy milk; it's also the highest in fat--about equal to 2 percent cow's milk. Produced by soaking, crushing, and cooking soybeans, then extracting the liquid, the results are rich in protein. Soy milk also contains plant estrogens called isoflavones, which have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

Soy products aren't without controversy. An Italian study found that 40 grams of soy protein daily can reduce hot flashes by up to 45 percent; on the downside, isoflavones have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Still, including soy milk in your diet is more likely to help than hurt you, says Andrew Weil, M.D., director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The flavor and consistency of soy milks vary significantly from brand to brand. Some have a taste and texture described as gritty, chalky, or beany, while others are downright creamy. Organic brands are always preferable, since soybean crops are often heavily treated with pesticides.

Nut milks are derived from multiple sources, from Brazil nuts to hazelnuts. The most widely available is almond milk, which has been popular in Europe (especially during Lent) since the middle ages. The milk is produced from ground almonds, filtered water, and a small amount of sweetener, often brown rice syrup. Typically lower in calories and fat than soy beverages, nut milks are usually enriched with calcium and vitamins.

Grain milks also benefit from supplemental calcium and vitamins, and are available in full- and low-fat varieties. Oat milk is made by combining oat groats (hulled grain broken into fragments), filtered water, and sometimes beans, seeds, and other grains. Low in fat, it has the added bonus of 2 grams of fiber per serving, about 10 percent of the daily requirement.

Slightly sweeter is rice milk, which is made from brown rice, filtered water, and a small amount of brown rice sweetener. Other sources of grain milks include triticale, amaranth, spelt, rye, wheat, and barley. Like soy milk and nut milks, commercial grain beverages are manufactured in plain, vanilla, and chocolate flavors.