Need an alternative to cow's milk? Soy is the best, study shows

All Woman

YOU can introduce whole milk to your baby at age 12 months — before that, cow's milk won't meet an infant's nutritional needs as it isn't a good source of iron. But when baby starts eating out of the family pot and is weaned off the breast, parents can add whole milk to supplement their diets. Most parents choose cow's milk, as this type is what is readily available everywhere.

But there has been an uptick in the number of parents following plant-based diets, and parents may want to try out dairy-free alternatives to cow's milk. However, says the AFPin a report, although these plant-based milks are often touted as being healthy alternatives to milk, little research had been done before now to compare the benefits and drawbacks of each.

A new study from Canada's McGill University has now looked at the four most commonly consumed types of plant-based milk drinks — almond milk, soy milk, rice milk and coconut milk. These are all alternatives that some parents present to their children when they want to eliminate cow's milk, or when the children are lactose intolerant.

Which is the best bet?

The study compared the nutritional values of the various types of milk to those of cow's milk. It found that after cow's milk, which is still the most nutritious, soy milk was the “clear winner”. They also published a roundup of the pros and cons of each, summarised here by AFP.

Cow's milk

It's a wholesome, complete food, providing all major nutrients like fat, carbohydrates and proteins. It also provides beneficial anti-microbial effects, with a previous study showing that in infants, consumption of cow's milk can considerably reduce the risk of fever and respiratory infections.

However, milk allergy is one of the most common allergies among infants and children, affecting 2.2 to 3.5 per cent of children — an even greater percentage than those who are affected by peanuts and tree nut allergies. The good news is that 35 per cent of infants outgrow being allergic to milk by the age of five or six, and this may increase to 80 per cent by age 16.

Cow's milk is also not a good option for those who are lactose intolerant (due to the absence or deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the digestive tract), which affects somewhere between 15 to 75 per cent of all adults — depending on race, food habits and gut health.

Soy milk

Soy milk has been a substitute for cow's milk for four decades, and had the most balanced nutritional profile of the four milks included in the study. It is also widely consumed for the health benefits offered from the phytonutrients present in the milk. Known as isoflavones, these phytonutrients have anti-carcinogenic properties which can help prevent or delay cancer.

However, some dislike the “beany flavour”, and there is concern about the presence of anti-nutrients (substances that reduce nutrient intake and digestion).

Rice milk

As well as being lactose-free, rice milk can also be a good alternative for patients with allergy issues caused by soybeans and almonds. Its sweet taste makes it more palatable. However, it contains relatively little nutrition and there are also concerns about the high carbohydrate count.

The consumption of rice milk without proper care can also result in malnutrition, especially in infants.

Coconut milk

Consumption can help reduce levels of harmful low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) that are associated with cardiovascular diseases. It contains few calories, but most of them are from fat. It also contains no protein, and nutritional values are reduced if stored for over two months.

Almond milk

Almonds have a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) that are considered helpful in weight loss and weight management. MUFA also helps in reduction of low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol). However, other complementary sources of food are needed to provide other essential nutrients.

The full findings can be found published online in the Journal of Food Science and Technology.

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