On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Refrigerated vs. Shelf-stable Soy Milks

DEAR DR. BLONZ: Due to issues with milk proteins and lactose, I can no longer drink dairy milk. I have shifted to soy milk as a substitute, and have noticed big differences between the refrigerated soy milks and the ones sold at room temperature on the shelf. Until I read the Nutrition Facts labels, I thought soy milk was soy milk. Is there something about the way the “shelf” kind is processed that results in higher amounts of carbohydrates? I am a borderline diabetic and I need to watch my carb intake. But as a shopper, I have to watch my wallet, as well -- and the refrigerated soy milks are usually much more expensive. -- J.J., Sedona, Arizona

DEAR J.J.: While there are strict standards for the composition of dairy milk, it is different with soy milk and other milk substitutes. Manufacturers of these substitutes can roam along broader ingredient and flavor frontiers. There isn’t anything right or wrong with any particular approach.

Basically, soy milk is a beverage that comes from soybeans that are soaked, ground into a slurry and strained to remove any insoluble residue. Once you get beyond that, each product will be formulated according to that particular company’s vision: plain or flavored, with or without fat, fortified with added nutrients or not. Soy does not contain much calcium on its own, but many companies choose to fortify their products to provide a more dairy-like nutrient profile.

Before packaging, most commercial soy milk undergoes an ultra-high-temperature/short-time pasteurization process referred to as UHT. (This should be indicated on the carton.) Products can then be put in rectangular aseptic cartons, which are safe for storage at room temperature for up to a year. These cartons contain a special layer that prevents air or moisture penetration. Packaging is the key, not the level of carbohydrates in the formula.

Those products put in more conventional cartons will need to be stored at refrigerator temperatures. In both cases, freshness will be indicated by a “best used by” date, so be sure to check the dates before you make your selection. Once opened, both kinds need to be refrigerated and should be used within five to seven days.

The other essential step, as you have learned, is to read that Nutrition Facts label to see if the carton’s contents are consistent with your needs -- a good practice with any food. Incidentally, you had mentioned that you have an issue with milk protein. For those who have shifted to a milk substitute based solely on a need to avoid lactose (milk sugar), there are now 100 percent lactose-free milk products available in many areas. Check with your grocer.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.