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What’s a healthier choice than cow's milk: rice, soy or almond?

Soy milk is an adequate alternative to cow’s milk.

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THE QUESTION

I am lactose intolerant. What's a healthier choice: rice milk, soy milk or almond milk? What about coconut beverages?

THE ANSWER

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Navigating the non-dairy case takes time these days. If you're looking for a milk alternative, you'll find "milks" made from soybeans, brown rice, almonds, coconuts, even almond-coconut blends. You can choose unsweetened, plain or flavoured with vanilla, chocolate or strawberry.

All non-dairy milks are good choices for people who can't digest lactose, the natural sugar in cow's milk, because they are lactose-free. Depending on which one you choose, however, you could be missing out nutritionally: You need to read the fine print.

Here's a quick primer to help you choose the milk alternative that's right for you.

Almond beverage

Made from finely ground almonds and water, this nutty-tasting beverage has fewer calories than other non-dairy milks (original unflavoured: 60 calories per 250-millilitre cup; unsweetened: 35 calories per cup). Almond milk contains no saturated fat or cholesterol.

One downside of almond milk is its low protein content – only one gram per cup versus eight grams in one cup of cow's milk. If you opt for almond milk, make sure you're getting enough protein from the rest of your diet or consider adding half a scoop of protein powder to almond milk smoothies.

While almonds are naturally high in vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage caused by free radicals, almond milk isn't.

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One cup provides 1 to 1.5 milligrams, only 10 per cent of a day's requirements. By comparison, one quarter-cup of raw almonds contains 9 mg, or 60 per cent of your daily vitamin E.

Most commercial brands of almond milk are fortified with vitamins A, D, B2 (riboflavin), B12, calcium and zinc to match what's found naturally in cow's milk. One 250-ml cup of almond milk delivers 330 mg of calcium, 100 IU of vitamin D and 1 mcg of B12.

Watch out for sugar. Even unflavoured almond milk has added sugar, eight grams' worth. Unsweetened products are sugar-free.

Coconut beverages

A relative newcomer to the dairy-alternative category, coconut beverages are made from filtered water and coconut cream (the thick non-liquid layer that separates and rises to the top of coconut milk during processing). Some manufactures add thickeners and emulsifiers to improve the texture.

Coconut beverages are naturally higher in fat than other non-dairy milks – one cup has 4.5 to 5 grams, nearly all of it saturated. However coconut's saturated fat may have benefits.

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It's made up of a blend of medium-chain fatty acids that, compared to long-chain fatty acids, are stored less in fat tissue, and they appear to increase calorie-burning. (Most fats in our diet are long-chain fatty acids.) The saturated fat in coconut also appears to raise HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood.

Coconut beverages are low in protein (0.4 to 1 g per cup). They are fortified with vitamins and minerals, so you're getting similar amounts of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, B12, etc. to cow's milk. To avoid added sugars, look for unsweetened products (50 calories per cup).

Rice beverages

Higher in carbohydrates than other milk alternatives and cow's milk, rice beverages are made by blending partially milled rice (usually brown) with water. During processing, the carbohydrates break down into sugars, giving rice milk its sweet taste.

Rice milk contains almost no protein, so augment your diet with other protein-rich foods. On the plus side, it's fortified with 330 mg of bone-strengthening calcium (and vitamins) per cup. It's also a good choice for people with allergies who can't drink soy or almond beverages.

One serving of unflavoured rice beverages has 120 calories, 23 g of carbohydrates and 10 g of sugars. Unsweetened varieties have 90 calories, 15 g carbohydrates and less than a gram of sugar per serving. They're also free of saturated fat and cholesterol.

Soy beverages

Made from whole soybeans, soy milk is considered a nutritionally adequate alternative to cow's milk thanks to its protein content, 7 grams per cup. Another plus: There is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, in soybeans. One cup of soy beverage delivers 300 mg of ALA (women need 1,100 mg per day; men require 1,600).

Soy beverages typically have 3 to 4 g of fat per 250 ml serving, most of it unsaturated. Light (half the fat) and fat-free versions are available.

In general, chocolate-flavoured beverages have the most sugar (as much as 21 g), followed by strawberry (15 g), vanilla (8 g) and original (5 to 8 g). Original, unflavored soy milk has 80 to 100 calories per cup, depending on brand; unsweetened versions have 60 to 80 calories.

While most brands of soy beverage are fortified with vitamins and minerals, some aren't, so be sure to read labels.

Note: Milk alternatives are not appropriate for infants. Because plant-based beverages can be nutritionally incomplete, they are not a suitable substitute for breast milk, formula or cow's milk in children under the age of two.

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