Dairy-free what are the real health benefits

Cutting dairy out of your diet doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Nutritional therapist and natural chef Alessandra Felice looks at what alternatives are out there.

Dairy-free what are the real health benefits

An increasing number of people are choosing to cut dairy out of their diet and this means that in recent years supermarket shelves have become laden with free-from alternatives such as soya milk, oat cream and almond yoghurt. This is good news if you have discovered that you – or a member of your family – have a dairy intolerance or allergy and means that with just a few tweaks, you can still eat the same dishes as usual.

Intolerance vs allergies

If you’re thinking of changing your diet because of digestive issues, it’s useful to know the difference between dairy intolerance and dairy allergy. Lactase, the enzyme in the body that breaks down lactose in milk, begins to naturally deplete after the age of three as we are genetically programmed to no longer be dependent on our mother’s milk, and lactase deficiency in later years can lead to lactose intolerance. Symptoms include loose stools, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, runny nose, watery eyes and skin rashes, as well as colic in babies. This intolerance is different from an allergy as allergies generate an immune response. For instance, if you have an allergy to cows’ milk, your immune system will identify it as an invader or allergen and overreact by producing antibodies called ImmunoglobulinE (IgE). These antibodies travel to cells that release chemicals, causing a reaction. Symptoms of allergies appear as hives, itchiness, swelling, vomiting and diarrhoea. Unlike a food intolerance where people can eat small amounts of that ingredient without it creating too many problems, food allergies can cause a serious (sometimes life-threatening) reaction even just by eating only a tiny amount, touching or inhaling the food.

Alternatives to milk

Nowadays, being allergic or intolerant to milk doesn’t have to mean a total diet change, as there are a variety of dairy-free alternatives available. I’ve listed a few products that can be used in place of cows’ milk below.

  • Soya milk:

    Made with ground soy beans, this is one of the most well-known milk alternatives on the market and is available in supermarkets, cafes and restaurants.

  • Almond milk:

    Like soya milk, almond milk is ideal for use in teas, coffees and with cereals. It’s also delicious sipped on its own.

  • Rice milk:

    Slight thinner in texture and sweeter, this is useful for smoothies and desserts. COCONUT MILK: The thick and creamy texture of coconut milk makes it brilliant for use in cakes and when making ice cream.

  • Oat milk:

    Use this on porridge and in your baking.

  • Hemp milk:

    High in omegas 3 and protein, hemp milk is a good addition to a post-workout smoothie.

  • Hazelnut milk:

    Mixed with a bit of cacao powder and natural sweetener, this tastes just like liquid Nutella.

Most of these alternatives are simply nuts, seeds, coconut or grain and beans blended with water,  natural extracts and sweeteners. They often contain a stabiliser or thickener to avoid separation in the carton and it’s important to look at the ingredients when shopping. Most companies are really good at not using too many additives but it’s still easy to find products with artificial sweeteners, flavourings and preservatives so keep your eyes peeled. For those of you who love cooking, it’s simple to make your own dairy-free milk. Just blend one part nuts, seed or coconut with three parts water, strain to get rid of the pulp and then flavour with some vanilla extract, a pinch of salt and a few dates or a tablespoon of your choice of natural sweetener. Or, if you’re in a rush, blend two cups of water with a couple of tablespoons of nut/seed or coconut butter and you’ll have the creamiest and smoothest milk you’ve ever tasted.

Cheese, yoghurts and ice-cream

It’s not only milk alternatives that are on the market. Soya and nut-based cheese can be found in health foods shops nationwide and are slowly spreading into the supermarkets and the same is true for oat, rice or coconut-based cream. They work as well as their dairy counterparts but are much lighter on the digestion due to being made of only a grain or nut with added thickener. A range of dairy-free yoghurts can also be bought. Soya yoghurts are delicious with granola and come in a selection of flavours to please every palate, and coconut based yogurts are available too. With their thicker texture they work well with fresh fruit, as pancake toppings or as a base for frozen desserts. As the free-from offerings expand, you can find treats to satisfy even the sweetest of the sweet tooth. Coconut and cashew-based ice creams can rival the creaminess and smoothness of the best Italian gelato and almond and rice-based ones are being produced too. Again, when buying all these substitutes, it’s best to avoid products that contain additives, artificial colours and flavours and refined sweeteners.

What about other animal milks?

Unfortunately, people who are suffering from either a temporary or permanent lactase deficiency may also have a problem with goat, sheep and buffalo milk as lactose is present in all animal milks. However, if the cause of lactose intolerance is a digestive issue in which it is specifically cows’ milk proteins which irritate or damage the gut, the slightly different protein and nutrient composition of goat, sheep and buffalo milk may be tolerated making them great substitutes. It’s a good idea to consult a doctor about your condition to determine whether you could incorporate other animal milks into your diet.

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