In health circles, few plant-based foods have garnered a better rep than soy. But if you think any soy drink is the ticket to a better you, it's time for a reality check. Soy and other milk alternatives can be loaded with sugar and much lower in protein than regular milk, so you need to read the label carefully. Follow these tips to make the healthiest selection.
Choose a Milk Look-alike
"If you are using these beverages as a replacement for traditional milk, it's best they resemble it nutritionally," says Tara Gidus, M.S., R.D., an Orlando-based sports dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. To do this, she advises you find one with a respectable amount of protein--nonfat milk rings in at eight grams per cup. (Soy and hemp beverages put in the best performance when it comes to this macronutrient.)
Most nutritionists also stress that you should only put brands in your shopping cart that bear the label "fortified." This means minerals such as calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D have been added to the product. "Scan the nutrition facts and look for at least 30 percent of the daily value for calcium," says Gidus.
Take a close look at the vitamin D content as well. Vitamin D, found in few foods, improves calcium absorption, and, according to an increasing number of new studies, can reduce cancer risk. The type of vitamin D normally added to non-dairy beverages--ergocalciferol or vitamin D2--is less potent than what's used to fortify milk--cholecalciferol or vitamin D3. Why are non-milk drinkers being shortchanged? Vitamin D3 is animal-derived, so in order to create vegan-friendly drinks, plant-derived D2 is employed. If you drink only non-milk products and don't eat other dairy, you may need to take a daily vitamin D supplement to make up the difference.
However, Gidus notes that some consumers aren't looking for a milk look-alike. "If you just want a beverage to enjoy and are getting nutrients found in milk elsewhere, make your selection based on taste."
Watch Out for Sugar
A glass of milk harbors roughly 12 grams of natural sugar in the form of lactose. Flavored milk-alternative drinks can contain more than 20 grams of sugar per cup. So do your waistline a favor and consider sugar amounts closely. "If sweeteners such as cane juice or brown rice syrup are one of the first ingredients, expect a fairly good dose of the sweet stuff," says Anne VanBeber, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition professor at Texas Christian University. Labels that say "original" or "unsweetened" often have less sugar than chocolate and vanilla versions which, depending on the brand, can be tantamount to liquid syrup. In fact, some unflavored versions have less sugar than cow's milk.
Don't Avoid Good-for-you Fat
"Almost all the fat in soy and other milk alternatives is heart-healthy unsaturated fat. Milk contains mostly undesirable saturated fat," says VanBeber. So don't worry if the drink isn't labeled "low-fat" and focus on the unsaturated fat values.
If you're looking to turn over a greener leaf, opt for organic non-dairy beverages. Doing so will mean your plant-based milk is produced without any genetically-modified ingredients or dangerous chemicals. "This will be an environmental choice, as there is not much difference nutritionally between organic and regular," says Gidus. (Take note: Much of North America's soy is subjected to science.)
Not all non-dairy drinks are created equal. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. Here's how the big five compare.