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Got milk? From a cow or a plant?

Our milk doesn't just come from animals anymore. (June 2011 file photo by James Buck/The Washington Post)

Just a few years ago, the term “milk” was synonymous with the stuff that came from cows.

But now, the dairy market is awash in plant-based alternatives, made from soy, rice, almonds, coconut and hemp, driven largely by consumers’ hunger for low-calorie, low-sugar, lactose-free companions for their morning cereal and coffee.

Milk alternatives control just  eight percent of overall milk sales in the United States, but for the past few years, they've represented the fastest-growing part of the dairy market, according to Mintel, Inc., a Chicago-based research firm. Sales of milk alternatives rose to nearly $2 billion in 2013, up 30 percent since 2011, driven in large part by the popularity of almond milk. In that same time period, the entire milk category grew by just 1.8 percent, to $24.5 billion, according to Mintel. Non-dairy milk's growth is expected to continue outpacing dairy milk's at least through 2018.

Plant-based alternatives can be a saving grace for anyone with food allergies or lactose intolerance, or those who follow vegan diets.  (While the true prevalence of lactose intolerance is unknown, an estimated 12 percent of Americans suffer from the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.)

Probably the more powerful factor driving the popularity of milk substitutes is a consumer group that Sandy Krueger, executive and practice leader at IRI Worldwide, a Chicago-based market research firm, calls the “healthy chic” -- people who look at labels and are drawn to new products with attributes that promise to improve health and wellness.

“There’s a sort of health halo” to plant-based milks, says Krueger. “There’s a general perception that they’re healthier than cow’s milk, and taste better.”

With the proliferation of new flavors and varieties – some 52 new milk-substitute products have been rolled out so far in 2014 -- the growth is sure to continue, she says.

The nutrition profile of each milk substitute varies widely, so different products appeal to people with different health priorities, says Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

People counting calories might reach for almond milk, which has less than half the calories of a glass of skim milk, and no sugar. Those who want to boost protein intake may choose soy milk, which has 8 grams of protein per serving, as much as a glass of cow’s milk.  Some drink kefir -- a fermented, fortified dairy drink -- because it contains probiotics, which help digestion and  defend against GI distress. Hemp milk, made from the hemp seed, can be a good option for kids with food allergies who need a source of calcium or protein, says Crandall.  It also has essential fatty acids like Omega 3 and Omega 6, which help build healthy cells and reduce risk of heart disease.

But just because a milk is plant-based, doesn’t mean it’s healthful.

While many of the plant-based milks are fortified, some don’t contain as much calcium or vitamin D as cow's milk, which is important in preventing osteoporosis. Crandall says you can supplement with foods like cottage cheese, kale, chia seeds, edamame and sardines, which are packed with calcium and Vitamin D.

Stick with pasteurized, unsweetened varieties of milk alternatives, says Crandall. Almond Breeze Chocolate milk, for instance, has 20 grams of sugar, as much as there is in a Cadbury Crème Egg.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest cautions consumers to read labels closely and beware of milk substitutes that ride the health benefits of the plant they’re derived from, even if the milk isn’t as nutritious as the whole food. For instance, while an ounce of almonds has about  6 grams of protein, the actual milk product has only 1 gram per one-cup serving.

And in the kitchen, each milk substitute is suited for different uses. Hemp milk, for instance, is a good choice for cappuccinos and lattes, because it froths better than other plant-based varieties, says Megan Roosevelt, a Portland, Ore.,-based registered dietitian who runs Healthy Grocery Girl. Because of its thick, creamy consistency, soy milk is ideal in smoothies and for cooking and baking. Almond milk, milder in flavor and thinner in texture, tastes good in coffee, tea, smoothies or on its own. Rice milk has the thinnest consistency of all non-dairy milks and can be a good accompaniment for cereal or smoothies.

The proliferation of milk substitutes hasn’t gone unnoticed by the marketers of cow’s milk. A variety of dairy-milk products with added protein and probiotics have recently hit store shelves. In February, the dairy-milk processors rolled out a $50 million ad campaign that promotes milk’s high protein content.

Calcium has been milk's traditional nutritional advantage over other beverages. But by focusing on protein and all of its implicit benefits -- protein increases satiety, assists in weight management and builds muscle mass -- dairy-milk producers have seized on a way to stay culturally relevant for parents, aging boomers and seniors.

The so-called Milk Life campaign replaces the “Got Milk?” campaign, which began in 1995.  New commercials feature kids, teens and adults drinking milk to power everything from breakdancing to dogwalking, and the promise, “This is what eight grams of protein can do.”

In consumer research, the message about milk’s high-protein content was the one most likely to win over consumers now drinking juice, water, or soda, says Victor Zaborsky, marketing director for the Milk Processor Education Association, which represents 200 dairy milk companies. “It really emphasized the benefits that dairy milk had over alternative beverages,” he says.

“Traditionally milk been an unconscious choice – just something you put in your coffee or cereal,” Zaborsky said. “Now we’re trying to shift it so that dairy milk is a conscious choice consumers routinely make to improve their quality of life for the long term.”