Dear EarthTalk: I'm noticing a lot of non-dairy alternatives to milk and cheese products in my supermarket these days. Are they any good and what are the health benefits? --Cailin White, San Francisco, CA
Dairy products are among the leading causes of food allergies, and there are growing numbers of people who seek to avoid them for that reason, or because their bodies are lactose intolerant, or because they seek to avoid all foods that come from animal sources as part of a strict vegetarian diet. Another concern is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is administered to an estimated 30 percent of conventional dairy cows to increase production. Some scientists believe that consuming dairy products from rBGH-treated cows may increase the risk of prostate and pre-menopausal breast cancer.
The non-dairy offerings you are seeing are primarily soy-based products. Soymilk has been around for years, and recently soymilk-makers have tweaked tastes and textures such that they're now much more appealing to the American palate. Whether you buy them fresh in the dairy case or in aseptic (paper and foil) packages, you'll notice that they vary greatly in taste from one brand to the next. Even varieties made by the same company can vary, as soymilks come in low fat, low-carb, vanilla- and chocolate-flavored, unsweetened and vitamin-fortified versions. Once you find one you like, you can use it, cup-for-cup, as a milk replacement in most recipes, or just drink it straight up. Look for brands labeled "USDA organic", as those won't contain genetically modified ingredients or residues from pesticides.
Edensoy, one of the original soymilks, is sold in those easily stored aseptic packages, which don't need to be refrigerated until opened. White Wave's Silk, which is sold cold in the dairy sections of many supermarkets now, has a smooth taste and even mixes well in coffee. It also comes in vanilla, chocolate and eggnog flavors. Hain Celestial's Westsoy offers fresh soy shakes and lattes as well as plain milks.
If you're looking for non-dairy alternatives to cheese, some of the faux cheeses can be downright inedible, while others are delicious. TofuRella cheddar flavor is harsh on the palate, though low in calories and fat compared to its dairy counterpart. Lifetime Low Fat Jalapeno Jack Rice Cheese, made from rice milk, is quite tasty. It is low in fat and calories and tops pizza well (though don't expect it to melt quite as well as conventional cheese). The very edible and tasty-in-a-sandwich Good Slice Cheddar Style Cheese Alternative from Yves Veggie Cuisine is lower in fat and calories than most others. Galaxy Nutritional Foods offers a particularly wide range of alternative cheeses from mozzarella to cream cheese to feta crumbles. Dairy-free cheeses are not found as readily in mainstream supermarkets as the soymilks, but are available in most natural foods markets such as Wild Oats, Mrs. Green's, Whole Foods Market and others.