Every time we turn around, there’s a new food being milked. From nuts and seeds to grains and legumes, you name it, it probably comes in “milked” form. Even the Cuban coffee bars in Key West, where I vacationed last week, now offer almond milk, a capitulation I would never have expected in the southernmost city.
Lactose intolerance and dairy sensitivities have driven us to find replacements to add to our coffee, tea and cereals. Many of us have found that we simply feel better without dairy and have reached for alternatives in the form of soy, oat, almond, cashew, hemp and coconut milks to name a few, but are they healthy for us?
Milk mimicsWhen it comes to conventional milk, a cow’s udder is fairly self-explanatory, but how in the world do you milk an oat? Soy beans, oats and other alternative sources become unrecognizable once they’re “milked” and most of them would be unpalatable by our standards without the addition of sweeteners and extra flavorings. Food companies know we’d turn up our noses if these milk replacements separated, as they’re apt to do naturally, so they’ve added emulsifiers and have enhanced their texture to prevent just that. In addition to emulsifiers, like gums and oils that prevent separation and make them smooth, minerals like calcium are added to fortify them.
Not all of these milks or “mylks,” as they are sometimes known, are new. One of the oldest alternatives to cow’s milk, or human milk for that matter, is soy milk. Soy milk has been around for nearly two thousand years and, though it played a limited role in traditional Chinese diets, was typically sweetened before consumption.
Ode to oat milkA bit newer in the dairy alternative world, oat milk has taken it by storm. Though oats are nearly a complete protein, oat milk is fairly viscous and, like its counterparts, also separates. To fix this problem, companies have turned to ever-popular gums like guar, gellan or xanthan gum. One mainstream oat milk recipe calls for “low erucic acid” to thicken its product. Simply put, low erucic acid isn’t pure enough to even be called canola oil and has been linked to heart problems in animal studies. (The FDA limits canola oil’s fatty acid profile to two percent erucic acid. Low erucic acid is too high in — you guessed it — erucic acid to sport the name canola).
Derived from the rapeseed (which happens to be highly toxic for humans), canola seeds are typically genetically modified to tolerate higher levels of pesticides and are processed with solvents when the oil is harvested. To make matters worse, canola oil is inflammatory … yum, just what I want in my coffee. Many of us reach for dairy alternatives to avoid lactose or to address chronic health issues and gut imbalances. Why, then, are these dairy alternatives pumped with things that are considered “gut irritants” at the very least?
Emulsifiers are only one of the problems with some dairy alternatives. In addition to playing on our love for smooth, velvety textures, food companies service our palettes with a plethora of flavors that excite our taste buds. As pumpkin spice season is upon us now, these flavors are simply chemicals that dance on our taste buds and leave imprints on our brains.
Glancing at all the additives in plant milks may make you throw your hands up in the air in exasperation. That’s exactly what Lauren Abelin did when she was desperately searching for a plant-based milk for her infant son. A first-time mom, Lauren had just moved to Hawaii a few months before his birth and had dreamed of being a salt of the earth mom — breastfeeding her son exclusively at first and then continuing to do so while implementing solids. As her motherhood progressed, however, she realized that her son had a milk and soy allergy. “I took dairy and soy out of my diet, which wasn’t hard because I had done that before when dealing with my chronic health condition, and it helped him,” recalls Abelin. “But when I stopped producing enough milk to solely breastfeed him, it was hard because he was hungry. It wasn’t part of my plan and I felt like I had failed.”
Lauren and her husband, Alex, took to the grocery store aisles to find alternatives for their son. They found little solace in formulas, since everything contained dairy or soy. “It was maddening that there was only soy and cow dairy infant formula on the market,” Abelin says. “[There was] nothing non-soy [and] plant-based that I could feed my baby.” The couple returned home to concoct a solution of their own. Enter Kiki Milk.
Creating a healthy alternative with the help of nutritionists and doctors, Lauren finally found something she was comfortable with feeding her son and decided she wanted to share it with the world, but ran into further dilemmas. “When you scale a product, it has to be precise,” she says. “You have to have precise measurements so it will be consistent every time.” She interviewed food scientists to analyze the breakdown of her product and received a lot of advice she hadn’t expected. “They told me repeatedly to use the gums and emulsifiers. They said it will be easier, it will be cheaper. And I said I don’t care if it’s cheaper or easier, that’s not the point.” These food scientists argued that her customers wouldn’t like a product that separated. “They’ll be fine,” she countered. “They can shake it!”
Balanced specifically for growing kids, Kiki Milk uses natural, whole plant ingredients like oats, pumpkin seeds, coconut, hemp seeds, gooseberries and seaweed (a natural source of calcium). It packs real flavors (like antioxidant-rich cacao beans). Though pricey, the product is tested for residual pesticides like glyphosate, the weed killer used prodigiously in corn and other produce, that has been deemed a carcinogen. Lauren has learned so much during this endeavor and throughout our 45 minutes together, I’ve learned as well. When asked if there’s any competition in this space, she answers that she would love some! More competitive brands mean more options for healthy milk alternatives. Her answer seems to echo a resounding, “Bring it!”
Cow’s milk no longer has to be the gold standard. It can irritate our gut as much as anything and is inflammatory. There are healthy alternatives out there if we experience sensitivities to conventional dairy. Fast, easy and convenient has become the new gold standard and that comes with hidden tariffs in the form of additives, chemicals, colorings and flavorings: things that make our food taste deliciously addictive and make us crave that smooth, sexy texture.
If we can’t directly control the ingredients of the things we eat, look for clean labels and small, simple, ingredient lists. Finding alternatives that work for you is important and doable. Believe it or not, there are milks out there that contain only the ingredient being milked and some water…and they taste good! Just give it a shake and you’re in business. Perhaps food companies don’t want to wear out our arms with all the shaking we would have to do to keep the milks from separating, but a little arm workout never hurts.
(Not Pumpkin Spice) Coconut Curry Soup
• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 large onion, diced
• 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
• 1 small pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cubed (about 1½ pounds)
• 1 medium butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cubed (about 1½ pounds)
• 2 bay leaves
• ½ teaspoon nutmeg
• ½ teaspoon ginger
• 2 tablespoons curry powder
• Salt & Pepper (to taste)
• ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional for desired spice)
• 3 to 4 cups chicken broth, depending on desired consistency
• 3/4 can coconut milk, full fat (use the creamy part first, then some of the milk, until you reach desired consistency)
• Sage (for garnish)
• Pumpkin seeds (for garnish)
• Greek yogurt (optional, for garnish)
Place olive oil in a large Dutch oven and heat.
Add onion and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, or until translucent.
Add pumpkin, squash and bay leaves.
Add spices, stirring while adding chicken broth.
Cook mixture for about 25 to 30 minutes or until tender.
Remove from heat and cool.
Using an immersion blender, blend until smooth.
Add coconut milk and return to heat, stirring with top off until you reach your desired consistency.
Garnish with pumpkin seeds, sage (roast in oven to make delish) and a dollop of yogurt, if desired.