Since the explosion of dairy alternatives on the market (like soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk) more people are asking about these drinks: which tastes best, which works best for baking, which has the most protein, etc. For hundreds of years, the only type of milk available was that that came from an animal (most often cows, goats and sheep). Today there are many non-dairy milk alternatives available, each with a different nutritional profile, flavor, color and texture. Milk alternatives are not actually “milk” per se, but more of a “juice”– an extract from a certain plant source.
Let me begin by saying that dairy milk is a highly nutritious food. You can read more about the health benefits of milk in an article I wrote for Medical News Today here. However, there are many reasons you might search for an alternative for dairy, the most common being allergies or lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a common condition where the body loses its ability to digest lactose, often causing bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and discomfort.
Levels of lactose intolerance vary per individual. One person may be able to tolerate aged dairy with low levels of lactose such as yogurt and hard cheeses, however another may be unable to tolerate even a splash of milk in their coffee. I personally eat yogurt on a daily basis, but have to steer clear of liquid dairy and ice cream. Those with an actual milk allergy must strictly avoid milk and dairy in any form. Others choose to not consume dairy in order to follow a vegan diet, which avoids any foods that come from an animal including milk, cheese, eggs and honey.
Other reasons for dairy avoidance is to prevent ingestion of hormones and antibiotics in conventional milk, as a possible acne treatment, or when following the popular “Paleo” diet.
When making the decision to not consume dairy, you must be able to make up for the loss of nutrients elsewhere, especially calcium and vitamin D. Some milk alternatives are similar to that of dairy milk and provide many of the same nutrients, while others may be lacking in certain areas. Use this list to help determine which milk alternative is best for you.
All of the beverages listed below are lactose free.
Soy milk is probably the most popular and recognizable milk alternative. It is made from the bean extract of soybeans and comes in sweetened, unsweetened and flavored varieties such as chocolate and vanilla.
Soy milk has the most similar nutrition profile to cows milk, with 8 to 10 grams of protein per serving and is often fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D and riboflavin.
Soy isoflavones have been shown to be beneficial in preventing heart disease and at least 10mg per day can decrease breast cancer recurrence by 25%.
Increased soy consumption may be beneficial for menopausal women due to compounds in soy that behave similar to estrogen that could lessen the natural decrease in estrogen during menopause, therefore decreasing common symptoms such as hot flashes.
If consuming non-GMO foods are a concern, look for a soy milk with the non-GMO certified label.
Almond milk has much less protein than dairy milk and soy milk, but has a pleasant flavor and creamy texture similar to dairy milk that most enjoy.
Almond milk has about 1/3 of the calories as 2% milk. It has a high amount of vitamin E, providing about 50% of the daily value in one serving (one cup) but is lacking in other vitamins, minerals and fatty acids present in dairy milk. Because of this, almond milk is not a suitable alternative for infants.
Almond milk is made from ground almonds, water and sweetener.
Other common nut milks include cashew, hazelnut and walnut milk.
Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of any of the milk alternatives and is often free of soy, gluten and nuts. It is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup and brown rice starch. Rice milk is high in carbohydrate and low in protein compared to dairy milk. Rice milk is not recommended to cook or bake with due to its watery texture.1 Make sure to choose a rice milk that is calcium fortified.
Coconut milk may be the closest milk alternative with the texture of that of whole milk. It is relatively high in fat with about 5 grams of saturated fat per serving. Coconut milk, along with most nut milks, work well in baked goods because of their nutty flavors. Also often free of soy and gluten, coconut milk is often a good choice for those with multiple food allergies. However, coconut milk is not comparative in nutritional profile to that of dairy milk. One serving (one cup) of original coconut milk contains 80 calories, 1 g of protein and 100 mg of calcium while 1 cup of 1% dairy milk has about 100 calories, 8 g of protein and 300 mg of calcium.
Hemp milk is another good alternative for those allergic to soy, nuts and gluten and is made from hulled hemp seeds, water and sweeteners. It contains a good amount of protein and fatty acids but falls short in calcium.
Other milk alternatives new to the market include quinoa milk, oat milk, and potato milk, 7-Grain milk (from oats, rice, wheat, barley, triticale, spelt and millet) and sunflower milk.
Check out The Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives Guide by Sharon Palmer, RD for a comparison chart detailing serving size calories, protein, fat, sugar content and flavor profile of each of the milks mentioned above.
If you choose to avoid dairy products, make sure you are making up for the loss of nutrients with other whole foods or choose a milk alternative that is closest in nutritional profile to that of dairy milk. Be wary of flavored milk alternatives, as they can be high in added sugars.
Lactose-free dairy milk is available to those with lactose-intolerance, as well as organic dairy milk for those concerned with hormones and antibiotics consumption. What I have found that works best for me nutritionally and flavor-wise is to switch between a plain non-GMO soy milk and lactose-free dairy milk, depending on what’s on sale that week. I sometimes will buy almond or coconut milk for smoothies or certain baked good recipes, but not as often since they are lacking in protein.
What are the alternatives to drinking dairy milk? Ware RDN, Megan, Medical News Today.
Dairy Food Substitutes – The Sky’s the Limit, Today’s Dietitian. Schaeffer, Julian, Vol. 14 No. 8 P. 38.
The Real Deal on Dairy Alternatives: Soy, Rice, Almond & Hemp. Li RD, Rae, Fitday.
Cuckoo for Coconut Products. Today’s Dietitian, Appold, Karen,.