11 key things to consider before ditching dairy for a milk alternative

CHICAGO — There has never been a better time to look for an alternative if you've decided dairy is not your thing. Almond milk is the most popular, but other alternatives are chipping away at the dairy industry, now making up roughly 10 percent of the overall market.

There are milks made out of cereals (oat, rice and corn), nuts (almonds, coconuts and cashews), legumes (soy and peas), seeds (flaxseed or hemp), and even pseudo-cereals like Quinoa. In addition to all these categories, there are countless brands to choose from.

Dr. Melinda Ring of Northwestern’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine says one way to decide which is best for you is by checking the label before you buy.

"Even within a category of milk, it can be very different from brand to brand," Dr. Ring said.

When comparing products, here's what Dr. Ring recommends looking for:

Is it fresh?

Milks in the refrigerated section are not necessarily better than those on the grocery shelves. Dr. Ring says it all has to do with shelf life, not a compromise to your health or exposure to unwanted preservatives. Choosing an organic option is better as well.

Is it sweetened?

Ideally, unsweetened milks are best, Dr. Ring said. Check the ingredients, and if anything ending with “ose” is listed, that is some type of sweetener or sugar.

Is it fortified?

Many milks contain added components such as calcium, but Dr. Ring said the science is still unclear if nutrients in fortified drinks are absorbed the same way. But if you're looking to add more of a nutrient to your diet, finding a fortified milk may be a good option.

Watch out for carageenan

Dr. Ring said carageenan, an emulsifier that helps with texture, should be avoided because it has been associated with gastrointestinal issues and could be carcinogenic.  She says sorghum or soy lecithin are better emulsifiers that help with texture and thickness.

Pros and cons: Soy milk

Soy products are a good source of protein, but could have negative hormonal and digestive effects. Dr. Ring says between 1 to 5 percent of people develop gastrointestinal issues from soy. Still, she maintains, 1-2 glasses a day is reasonable for adults looking for a milk substitute.

"For people who are trying to mimic cow’s milk to the closest degree, soy milk is probably the best choice," Dr. Ring said.

Pros and cons: Rice milk

Dr. Ring gives to strikes against rice milk. First, it’s naturally full of sugar and high in carbs. Second, concerns about arsenic in rice leaves many consumers skeptical about pouring a glass of rice milk.

Pros and cons: Coconut milk

Coconut milk is high potentially good fats called medium chain triglycerides, which may have benefits for the brain. But Ring says the jury is still out on its benefits because it's so high in fats generally, including saturated fat.

“I think it’s fine to use... a little bit, in coffee or cooking. I wouldn’t drink gallons of it," Dr. Ring said.

Pros and cons: Hemp and flaxseed milk

While some people have trouble with the taste, Dr. Ring said both hemp and flaxseed milk are rich in anti-inflammatory fat.

“Everybody should be working on decreasing inflammation, since inflammation is a contributor to every disease, including cancer and heart disease," Dr. Ring said.

Pros and cons: Almond milk

Almond milk often gets high marks for taste and being low in calories, and fewer people are allergic to almonds than other nuts. But critics worry it's an unsustainable product, taking too many almonds to produce the non-diary milk and using too much water in the process.

Pros and cons: Pea milk

It’s not green and tastes nothing like peas, but Dr. Ring said the taste is winning consumers over. The milk made from (yellow) peas is 50 percent lower in sugar, and higher in protein and calcium. Added oils help with taste and texture, but Dr. Ring asks: are you really drinking milk for oils?

It all comes down to taste

Since what really matters is whether you'll like the taste, WGN ran a (non-scientific) taste test with five different tasters. The conclusion: 3 out of 5 thought unsweetened oat milk was okay, while 3 out of 5 hated both unsweetened flaxseed and unsweetened almond milk.

So maybe the real question when it comes to ditching cow's milk is: are you doing it for the health benefits, or to ditch dairy altogether? Then act accordingly.