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Our cup runneth over with soy milks Add to ...

Not long ago, if you wanted to buy a carton of soy milk you had to make a trip to the health food store. And it was slim pickings when it came to choosing a product.

That's all changed. Visit any grocery store and you'll notice that soy beverages have invaded the dairy case. While there are plenty of products to choose from, not all soy beverages are created equal.

You can buy plain, vanilla, chocolate, mocha, cappuccino, and even eggnog-flavoured soy beverages. Calorie-conscious shoppers can choose fat-free and light versions. There are brands that claim "high calcium" and others that boast added omega-3 fats and soy fibre. And, if you prefer, you can buy soy beverage made from organically grown soybeans.

Last year, Canadians gulped down 44 million litres of soy milk, up 8 per cent from 2003. The growth of soy beverages is due, in part, to its image as a healthy alternative to milk.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing unhealthy about low-fat milk; and in addition to being a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D, studies show that low-fat dairy products can help lower blood pressure.

Soy beverages appeal to people for different reasons. They're lower in saturated fat than cow's milk (with the exception of skim milk). Soy beverages contain no more than one gram of saturated fat per 250-millilitre serving, and many brands have none. A 250-ml serving of 2-per-cent milk has three grams of saturated fat; 1-per-cent milk has 1.5 grams.

Many people who can't properly digest lactose, the natural sugar in cow's milk, opt for a soy beverage because it's lactose-free.

Soy beverages are also a convenient way to add soy protein to your diet. Research shows that a daily intake of soy protein can help lower blood-cholesterol levels.

But buying soy milk can be more complicated than you think. Here's what you need to know.

Protein

Soy beverages offer from six to 11 grams of protein per 250 ml, depending on the brand. (By comparison, cow's milk provides eight to 10 grams of protein per 250 ml serving.) Flavoured varieties tend to have protein numbers at the lower end of the range. That's because adding sugar to a product often dilutes its protein content. Choose a brand that provides at least eight grams of protein per serving.

Sugars

Adding sugar to flavour a soy beverage also adds calories. For example, a 250-ml serving of So Nice Original has 80 calories and five grams of added sugars. If you opt for So Nice Chocolate, you'll pour 150 calories and 21 grams (five teaspoons) of sugar into your glass. In general, chocolate-flavoured brands have the most sugar, followed by strawberry, then vanilla.

Just because a soy beverage is labelled "original" or "plain" doesn't mean that it's sugar-free. Unflavoured versions contain added cane juice or rice syrup, which adds five to 10 grams of sugar per 250-ml serving. If you want to really slash sugar, look for an unsweetened product. Natura, So Nice and Vitasoy have unsweetened versions with no more than two grams of sugar per serving.

Fat

Original and flavoured soy beverages provide anywhere from 2.5 to six grams of fat per 250 ml. Most brands hover around the three-gram mark, the same amount found in a similar serving of 1-per-cent milk (2-per-cent milk has five grams of fat per 250 ml). Products labelled "light" (Vitasoy Light, for example) have two grams of fat per serving. Fat-free brands (such as So Good Fat Free) have only 0.25 grams.

Unlike cow's milk, soy beverages derive most of their fat from unsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats that are found naturally in soybeans. The fat that's in So Good, a product made from soy protein rather than whole soybeans, comes from sunflower oil.

Some soy beverages contain more omega-3 fat than others. So Good Omega and So Nice Plus have added flax oil, which boosts the content of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), an omega-3 fat linked to heart health. A 250-ml serving provides 0.7 grams of ALA, more than half the recommended daily intake for women.

Vitamins and minerals

Since November, 1997, Health Canada has allowed manufacturers to fortify their products with nutrients, including vitamins A and D, riboflavin, thiamin, B6, B12, calcium, magnesium and zinc. That means that many fortified soy beverages provide the same amount of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, B12, riboflavin and zinc as milk.

Fortification of soy beverages is voluntary, so you need to read the "Nutrition Facts" table to know what you're buying. Choose a product that lists 27 to 30 per cent beside the "Daily Value" for calcium, and 45 per cent for vitamin D. This means you're getting 300 milligrams of calcium and 100 IU of vitamin D per serving (the same as milk). Soy beverages, fortified or not, are not appropriate for children under the age of two because they lack adequate fat and protein for growth. (Soy beverages should not to be confused with soy infant formula.)

If you're new to soy milk, you might need to try a few brands before you find one that appeals to your taste buds. Use soy beverages just as you would use milk -- in cereal, in smoothies, in tea and coffee and in cooking and baking.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Visit her website at lesliebeck.com.

Soy beverages

Per 250-ml serving for selected brands sold in the refrigerator case.

Brand Calories Protein (g) Fat (g) Sugars (g)
Earth Shake Super Cool Original 160 7.0 7.0 14.0
Master's Choice Original 110 6.0 3.0 10.0
President's Choice Original 84 6.3 2.6 5.6
President's Choice Vanilla 108 6.3 2.6 11.0
Sensational Soy Chocolate 148 6.3 3.0 17.0
Silk Plain 100 7.0 4.0 6.0
So Good Fat Free 100 9.0 0.25 5.0
So Good Omega 139 7.0 3.0 6.0
So Nice Mocha 150 6.0 3.5 21.0
So Nice Unsweetened 70 6.0 3.0 2.0
So Nice Plus Original 110 7.0 4.0 7.0
Soy Dream Original 130 7.0 3.8 9.0
Soy Dream Vanilla 150 7.0 3.8 13.0
Sunrise Enriched Original 123 7.4 3.6 N/A
Sunrise Enriched Unsweetened 76 7.6 3.7 N/A
365 Organic Original 100 7.0 4.0 6.0
Vitasoy Creamy Original 104 7.0 4.0 5.0
Vitasoy Rich Chocolate 163 7.0 4.4 26.0
 

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