Soy 'milk' is a common dairy alternative, but is it really good for you? We asked a nutritionist to take a closer look at the pros and cons of this drink.
What is soy ‘milk’?
Soy ‘milk’ is made from soaking and grinding soy beans, and it has been a traditional part of the Asian diet for thousands of years. The beans are typically soaked overnight, their skins are then removed before being blended with water and strained. The remaining liquid or ‘milk’ is then heated before being cooled and stored, after which it is ready to consume.
Soy ‘milk’ can be made at home or bought commercially. In the commercial production process, other ingredients may be added such as sweeteners or salt, depending on the brand or flavour.
Unsweetened soy milk is a good source of vegan protein with 2.4g per 100ml. It's also both low in fat (1.6g per 100ml) and carbohydrates (0.5g per 100ml), and therefore low in sugars (0.2g per 100ml).
Commercial soy ‘milks’ are typically fortified with added nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, both of which play a vital role in bone health, and vitamins B2 (also known as riboflavin) and B12, which are needed by the body to release energy from food, as well as helping to keep the nervous system healthy.
Depending on the brand you buy, and whether it's sweetened or has other added flavours such as coconut, chocolate or vanilla, the nutritional profile will change slightly, usually increasing the carbohydrates and sugars.
While there is no nutritional profile available for homemade soy ‘milk’, it can be assumed that it will be similar to commercial unsweetened soy ‘milk’ but without the additional fortification.
Soy products continue to cause some debate as to whether they are good for you or not. We do know that soy contains certain phytochemicals that may help improve cholesterol levels, as well as some menopausal symptoms.
There have been some claims, however, that soy is not good for women because of the effect it can have on the hormone oestrogen and how it could potentially increase the risk of breast cancer, but at the moment there is not enough evidence to support this. In fact, a 2014 study found that the consumption of soy, and its active component called isoflavone, may lower the risk of breast cancer. However, the NHS does advise those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer to avoid soy products.
Some of this debate seems to be around the fact that in the Western world we do not tend to drink the traditional Asian variety of soy, which is more renowned for these health benefits, but at the moment any evidence is inconclusive.
Is soy ‘milk’ healthier than cow’s milk?
Looking at the calorie content, soy milk is lower in calories than cow’s milk with just 26 calories per 100ml, whereas whole milk contains 63 calories, semi-skimmed 46 calories and skimmed milk 32 calories per 100ml.
The calcium content is the same as cow’s milk with 120mg but 100ml, but soy ‘milk’ is higher in vitamin K than cow’s milk but lower in other nutrients such as vitamins B12, B2 and potassium.
Those with a dairy allergy or who may be lactose-intolerant may find soy ‘milk’ a good alternative.
Is soy ‘milk’ suitable for everyone?
Soy can be an allergen, so if you know or suspect you have a soy 'milk' allergy you should avoid consuming it, and contact your GP or healthcare practitioner for advice.
The NHS advises that for children, soy ‘milk’ can be a dairy alternative, but you must speak to your GP first to ensure that they'll continue to get enough nutrients, such as calcium, in their diet.
The NHS also suggests that those with a thyroid condition known as hypothyroidism are also advised to limit their soy intake, as well as women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
How to buy the best soy ‘milk’
Organic, unsweetened brands are always going to best, but if you can’t buy organic, make sure the brand you buy is unsweetened, and always read the label to just check nothing else has been added, such as rice ‘milk’ or any flavourings.
This page was published on 21 June 2019.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
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