Take a walk through your local grocery store and you’ll likely notice the endless varieties of non-dairy milk alternatives lining the shelves. Lactose intolerance, milk allergies, food sensitivities, and an increase in consumer demand have led to a rise in the availability of non-dairy beverages. (26) With options ranging from nut and seed milk, such as almond and hemp, to varieties sourced from grains (e.g., rice, oats) or legumes (e.g., soy, pea), choosing a suitable alternative can seem overwhelming. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of non-dairy milk alternatives, how they compare to cow’s milk, and how to choose the healthiest milk alternatives.
Why choose dairy-free milk alternatives?
Outlined below are some reasons an individual may choose or need to consume non-dairy beverages instead of cow’s milk.
An allergy to cow’s milk typically presents during infancy and affects approximately 3% of infants worldwide. Although a milk allergy is possible in adults, many children outgrow their allergy, with only 1% of people over six being affected. (5) Symptoms of a milk allergy can vary from diarrhea to a severe, life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. (5) Individuals with a milk allergy must strictly avoid all foods and beverages containing cow’s milk to prevent allergic reactions. Instead of cow’s milk, dairy-free foods and beverages are suitable alternatives.
It’s important to note that non-dairy beverages are not substitutes for infant formula. If your infant is allergic to cow’s milk, speak to your pediatrician who can suggest a safe alternative to ensure they’re obtaining proper nutrition for optimal growth and development.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine does not produce enough of the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digesting the naturally-occurring sugar found in milk, known as lactose. In contrast to an allergy, lactose intolerance does not necessitate complete avoidance of dairy-containing foods and typically presents with minor, yet uncomfortable, gastrointestinal symptoms, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea. (25) Limiting or avoiding foods and beverages containing lactose can significantly reduce these symptoms. (13)
It’s estimated that between 28 and 70% of people worldwide poorly digest lactose, with a greater prevalence of lactose intolerance among individuals in Asian and African countries. (22) Non-dairy beverages and lactose-free milk, a cow’s milk product produced by adding lactase, are appropriate alternatives for those struggling with the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Beyond personal taste preferences, many people choose to avoid dairy products for health or ethical reasons. For example, vegans avoid animal-sourced foods, including all dairy products. Many vegans choose not to consume dairy products due in part to the environmental and animal welfare concerns associated with large-scale dairy production. (3) Non-dairy milk alternatives are widely sourced from plants, making them suitable for vegans and other individuals who choose to avoid dairy.
Did you know? Dairy production remains a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. (3)
Best milk alternatives
There are several milk alternatives commercially available today. Some of the most popular and prevalent types of non-dairy options are described below.
Almond milk, which is produced by soaking and grinding almonds in water then filtering out the solids, has emerged as one of the most popular non-dairy beverages in North America. (26) Its mild flavor lends to its versatility, making it perfect for baking, adding to your coffee or tea, blending into a smoothie, or enjoying with your morning bowl of oatmeal or cereal.
Compared to many non-dairy beverages found in stores, unsweetened almond milk is often the lowest calorie option. Almond milk contains very little protein, and its nutritional profile differs significantly from that of cow’s milk. (26) To improve their nutritional value, almond beverages and many other non-dairy beverages are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, B12, D, and E, as well as calcium. (26)
Nutritionally speaking, almond milk is very similar to many types of nut-based non-dairy beverages. If you’re looking for another nut-based non-dairy beverage, cashew milk is a popular option with a very similar nutrition profile. (21) Cashew milk tends to have a thicker consistency than almond milk, making it perfect for adding to lattes or smoothies.
Did you know? Greater almond milk production resulting from increased consumer demand has contributed to some environmental concerns. Over 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in drought-prone regions of California, leading to drained aquifers, increased use of herbicides, and consequently, a dramatic reduction of honeybee populations. (4)
Soy milk is produced by soaking soybeans in water, then grinding, boiling, and filtering the liquid. (19) Thanks to its high protein content, soy milk is the most nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk of all plant-based non-dairy beverages available. (19) Plain, unsweetened soy milk can be used in sweet or savory recipes, just like you’d use cow’s milk.
Some concern surrounding the estrogen-like compounds found in soy, known as isoflavones, still exists despite decades of research reporting the many health-promoting benefits of soy consumption. (10) Populations that regularly consume soy products have been shown to have lower incidences of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease (6) and breast and prostate cancers. (11) Most populations can safely enjoy soy milk and other soy-based products; however, individuals with a soy allergy should avoid soy products entirely. Additionally, some research suggests that soy may be contraindicated for individuals with thyroid conditions, such as hypothyroidism, although evidence is inconclusive. (12)(17)
Did you know? 94% of soy grown in the United States is genetically modified. (24) When possible, select organically-grown soy products to eliminate any potential health risks associated with genetically-modified soy. (1)
Rice milk is produced by mixing milled rice and water to create a white, milky liquid. Characterized by a mild, sweet flavor, rice milk is tasty when used in fruit smoothies or added to breakfast cereals. Rice milk is one of the least allergenic non-dairy milk substitutes, making it a suitable alternative to cow’s milk for individuals with multiple food allergies or sensitivities. Compared to cow’s milk, rice milk contains high amounts of carbohydrates and minimal protein and fat. (26)
Coconut milk is produced by grating the white flesh of a coconut and mixing it with hot water. Not only is coconut milk a tasty beverage, but full-fat coconut milk (found in a can) adds richness and flavor to many savory dishes such as curries and soups. Canned full-fat coconut milk and coconut milk sold in a carton differ in consistency, taste, and nutritional value. For example, canned coconut milk is higher in fat and calorie content. In contrast, coconut milk in a carton contains more water and provides far fewer calories and grams of fat per serving. (20)
Although low in protein, coconut milk is rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium. (20) Coconut milk is delicious when added to smoothies or your morning bowl of cereal.
Hemp milk is made by blending seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant. While sourced from the same plant that produces marijuana, hemp seeds do not contain the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Instead, hemp seeds are tiny protein-packed seeds that are rich in heart-healthy fats. According to one analysis, hemp milk contains the highest amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids per serving of any non-dairy beverage. (9)
You can use hemp milk similarly to cow’s milk–enjoy with your coffee or tea, pour it into cold cereals, or use it in baking.
One of the most recent plant-based beverages to emerge on grocery store shelves is oat milk, a creamy, slightly sweet liquid produced by blending oats with water and straining out the solids. Since it’s produced using grains, unsweetened oat milk contains more carbohydrates than nut- or legume-based non-dairy beverages, such as almond or soy milk. (20)
Oats are widely known for their heart health-promoting properties, primarily attributed to their fiber content. One study demonstrated that daily consumption of oat milk for a five-week period significantly reduced total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in men with moderate hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol) compared to a control beverage. (16)
How can you use oat milk? Oat milk can be used in baking recipes and it froths well, making it perfect for lattes.
Dairy vs. non-dairy alternatives
How do non-dairy alternatives compare to cow’s milk? The table below outlines the nutrition facts data for cow’s milk and non-dairy milk alternatives.
What to consider when choosing non-dairy milk alternatives
Not all dairy alternatives are created equal. Many products contain added sugar, emulsifiers, and other additives. It’s important to analyze nutrition facts labels to determine the healthiest and most suitable products for your needs and preferences.
Many plant-based beverages contain added sugars, and it’s not uncommon for these sugars to be disguised as other ingredients, such as corn syrup or brown rice syrup. Your total daily sugar intake can add up quickly if you’re adding sweetened non-dairy milk to foods that don’t need added sweetness, such as cereal or smoothies. When possible, choose unsweetened varieties of your favorite non-dairy beverages to avoid unnecessary added sugar.
Download a handout on sugars and sweeteners to learn more about reducing your sugar intake and how to identify hidden sweeteners.
Many plant-based milk alternatives contain additives such as stabilizers, emulsifiers, and thickening agents to improve their stability and palatability. Examples of these additives include locust bean gum, carrageenan, gellan gum, and lecithin. (4)
When consumed in small amounts, these additives have not been shown to affect human health negatively. Some individuals may experience mild symptoms such as gas, bloating, or cramps when consuming foods containing additives. (23) Some animal and in vitro studies suggest that consuming food additives can trigger inflammation and disrupt the gut microbiota and mucosal barrier; however, human clinical trials have not yet substantiated these claims. (2)(7)(18)
If you are sensitive to emulsifying or thickening agents, select beverages without these additives. As a general rule, search for non-dairy beverages with minimal ingredients.
Many non-dairy alternatives are fortified with added vitamins and minerals to best replicate the nutrient composition of cow’s milk and provide a more nutritionally sound product. Calcium and vitamin D are the most common nutrients added to these beverages, (21) and some non-dairy beverages are fortified with added vitamins such as vitamins A, B12, and E. Fortified non-dairy products are particularly important for individuals who do not consume any dairy. (8) If you’re vegan, lactose intolerant, or allergic to cow’s milk, look for beverages that are fortified with vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B12 to replace nutrients that may be missing from your diet. Additionally, since most non-dairy beverages are low in protein, make sure you’re getting adequate protein elsewhere in your diet.
The bottom line
Whether it’s a personal preference or necessary for you to avoid dairy products, non-dairy milk alternatives, such as almond, oat, and soy milk, are all great options. Although most non-dairy beverages are not nutritionally identical to cow’s milk, many are fortified with vitamins and minerals to improve their nutrition profile. If you’re a patient, speak to your integrative healthcare practitioner before making significant dietary changes.
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