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The hidden dangers of alternative milks

Lisa Fogarty


Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

When it comes to milk, you just can't win

Cow's milk has gotten a bad rep in recent years. Critics argue that although it's an excellent source of calcium and nutrition for calves, higher dairy intake in humans can promote cancer, increase insulin-like growth factor-1 levels (which are also linked to cancer) and perhaps even have links to higher rates of multiple sclerosis. Many people are lactose intolerant, and others find that cow's milk causes or aggravates acne, constipation and even ear infections.

More: 9 alternative milks explained in one infographic

Clearly, there's a good reason why so many of us have turned to variations on the popular dairy product, such as soy, almond, cashew, coconut, rice and even raw milk alternatives. But all alt milks aren't created equal. Some are healthier than others, and others — well, they contain hidden additives and preservatives that could make you think twice before pouring them onto your cornflakes.

Soy Milk

It's often marketed as a health product, but Bec Weeden, a certified health and lifestyle coach at In2u, says soy milk is "a highly processed Frankenfood" that is anything but healthy. “Derived from the soy bean, soy milk contains large amounts of natural toxins that inhibit the digestion of proteins, interferes with thyroid function and is linked to cancer,” Weeden says. “Soy is also high in phytic acid, which can block the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals in the body. With a high percentage of soy being genetically modified, it is highly recommended that soy milk is avoided as a replacement to milk or other dairy products. It offers no nutritional value for human consumption.”

Annie Lawless, a certified holistic health coach, co-founder of Suja Juice and creator of the lifestyle/wellness site Blawnde, agrees. “More than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified," Lawless says. "Soy milk is sometimes not even made from real soy beans. When that happens, it’s made from a soy protein or isolate, which is just a heavily processed, heated and refined product. Additionally, guzzling soy milk is bad news for your hormones. We just aren’t meant to be consuming such large quantities of soy because it contains phytoestrogens (bad news for guys especially!). Also, have you tried unsweetened soy milk? Probably not because it tastes like death. If you’re into soy milk, I guarantee you’ve been drinking one with added sugars such as evaporated cane juice or rice syrup, and you’re really just into sugar. It also has major additives to extend its shelf life.”

Nondairy creamers

You're not doing your body any favors by replacing a drop of milk with a nondairy creamer in your morning coffee. Even though your creamer may have fewer calories than milk, Lawless says it's loaded with terrible ingredients. “Hydrogenated oils, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, artificial flavors, dipotassium phosphate, mono and diglycerides, color added, carrageenan, dextrose, sucralose, acesulfame potassium — yikes,” Lawless says. “And beware of the even 'healthier' ones such as coconut milk creamer and soy milk creamer. They are loaded with dried cane syrup, aka white sugar. My favorite crème de la crème is full-fat coconut milk with a little coconut palm sugar just to take that bitter bite off and brighten it up.” (Note: There is a different between coconut milk and coconut milk creamer)

More: What happens to your body when you cut dairy

Rice milk

Bad news for lovers of rice milk: It could contain arsenic (say what?!) and doesn't have any natural nutritional benefits of note. "Rice milk is derived from rice, sweetener or sugar, water, and added vitamins and contains high levels of arsenic as rice is one of the most absorbent grains of this highly toxic chemical," Lawless says. "Rice milk offers little to no nutritional value and has added vitamins and supplements to it in order for manufacturers to claim health benefits."

Nut milks, including almond and cashew

Just when you thought you've found the holy grail of alternative milk — I mean, we can all agree nuts such as almonds and cashews are healthy — experts warn that their names are misleading. “Most brands use very little actual nut (whether it's cashew, almond, coconut) in the preparation,” says Dr. Lisa Giusiana at “The ratio of nuts to water is so low that there ends up being very little nutritional value in the finished product. Because the product is mostly water, thickening agents must be used to give the milk viscosity, making it appealing to the consumer. To thicken the nut milks, they often use carrageenan or guar gums. This is one of the biggest hidden dangers, especially for those with sensitive gastrointestinal tracts, which is a good portion of the population these days. These thickening agents, although fairly naturally sourced, are not digestible. They trigger immune responses inside the gut, initiate inflammatory reactions and have been linked to multiple disease processes, both inside and outside the intestinal tract.”

Giusiana says her best recommendation is to make your own nut milks using a ratio of 1 part nut (almond, cashew, pecan, walnut, even shredded coconut) to 4 parts water. "Soak your nuts (preferably organic and raw) for a few hours or overnight," she says. "Strain and rinse. Blend with 4 parts water until well blended, then strain it through a nut milk bag or cheese cloth. You'll have a delicious, healthy milk alternative that's very clean and free of any sort of harmful chemicals or food additives."

More: Sorry, Mom, milk may not make our bones stronger after all

Coconut milk

Weeden calls coconut milk one of two of the healthiest and safest milk alternatives you can drink — one packed with nutrients that doesn't contain hidden, disappointing surprises. "Coconut milk is derived from the coconut flesh and water and is high in medium-chain fatty acids, which your body converts straight to energy rather than storing it as fat," Weeden says. "Coconut milk is typically non-sweetened and is rich in antioxidants; natural nutrients; and vitamins, including B, C, E, magnesium, potassium, iron and phosphorus."

Raw milk

It's not an actual milk replacement, but raw milk and dairy products are a hot topic these days. “These variations are in the rawest, most natural form and was how dairy was consumed before pasteurized and processed dairy was established,” Weeden says. “Raw forms of milk contain more than 60 digestive enzymes, protein, raw fats, vitamins and minerals. [They're for] people who can digest dairy well in its raw form and can source from a high-quality source."

But there are still plenty of raw milk skeptics out there, including Dr. Morton Tavel, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician's Advice. Tavel cautions us to beware of unpasteurized milk and cheese, which he says the CDC has determined accounted for 93 instances of disease between 1998 and 2009.

"Despite such robust information to the contrary, certain organizations, such as the Weston A. Price Foundation, actively promote the legalization of raw milk, claiming that it is not only completely safe but also can prevent and treat a wide spectrum of diseases, including heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, lactose intolerance, allergies and eczema," Tavel wrote on his website. "None of these claims has ever been supported by scientific evidence. Also, despite opinions to the contrary, scientific studies uniformly indicate that pasteurization does not change the nutritional value of milk."

Bottom line: Think before you drink. Not all milk substitutes are superior to the original.

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