Plant-based milks: Here's what nutrients to look for

A good source of protein, calcium and other nutrients, cow's milk has long been the go-to beverage for children in the US.

But dietary and environmental concerns have prompted some to choose an alternative. Milks made from nuts, seeds, rice, even peas are now crowding the dairy aisle.

"When I stopped drinking milk in 2001, there was literally one brand of soy milk available" said Dana Hunnes, a UCLA clinical dietitian.

Not anymore. Beyond rice and soy milk, Hunnes says you'll find oat, almond, cashew, hemp, flaxseed, coconut, even walnut and pea protein beverages.

And while most of us choose taste over nutrition when it comes to food, Hunnes says there's a handful of nutrients you might want to watch for - starting with protein.

"We all know that cows milk has about 8 grams of protein per cup, so when I'm looking for an alternate milk, I wanted to have somewhere around 6 to 7 to 8 grams of protein," Hunnes said.

If you don't have any intolerances, try soy milk or a product known as Ripple made from pea protein. Both have higher amounts of protein per serving than most rice, almond and coconut milks. But as always brands vary - so you will want to read the label to check.

"I have found that the almond milks without any added sugar probably tend to have the least amount of an actual product in it. Because they are so low calorie. And almonds are actually high in calories and fat, so when you're looking at only 30 calories per cup of an unsweetened almond milk, that kind of makes you question," said Hunnes.

Hunnes says almond milk is a perfectly acceptable choice but points out that more protein in your beverage will keep you feeling fuller.

She also suggests there should be certain vitamins and minerals.

"Vitamin D is a critical nutrient that has been added to many if not all alternate milks, and I do think that is important along with B-12," said Hunnes.

What you don't want more of is sugar. Cow's milk naturally contains lactose or milk sugar at 12 grams or roughly three teaspoons per cup. But when looking at milk alternatives, the extra sweetness provides little benefit. So look for the lower sugar or unsweetened option.
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