They say milk does a body good, but that’s not true for every body. If you’re lactose intolerant or have milk sensitivities, then your body cannot properly digest dairy products. Choosing to follow a vegan, plant-based diet is another top reason to eschew dairy milk. Other reasons to seek out milk alternatives include concerns about hormones and antibiotics in conventional milk products, worries about potential connections between dairy and cancer, and an interest in decreasing calorie consumption to facilitate weight loss or weight maintenance.
Drinking dairy milk has also been shown to increase your risk of developing ovarian cancer as well as diabetes. On the flip side, cow’s milk contains tons of calcium, which is needed to support healthy bones and teeth and to keep your cardiovascular system functioning optimally. It’s also rich in amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.
So what’s a person with dietary restrictions to do? It’s no question you need to provide your body with plenty of calcium, amino acids, and all the other nutrients dairy can offer. This can make it super overwhelming and confusing to choose which milk alternatives to reach for when you’re making the switch to non-dairy.
Thankfully, we’ve got you covered.
Why Choose Milk Alternatives?
When we use the phrase “milk alternative,” typically we’re referring to substitutes for cow’s milk. While there are a variety of other dairy milks out there, like goat milk, sheep milk, and even yak milk, in American culture as well as many other Western cultures, cow’s milk is far and away the most popular option.
Often holistic health care practitioners, dietitians, and nutritionists advise using milk alternatives and avoiding dairy for many reasons. The primary one being that studies have shown how difficult it is to digest milk. The process of pasteurizing milk breaks down the enzymes that would make it more easily digestible. But due to safety concerns, the pasteurization process takes precedence.
It’s also worth noting that the wealth of nutrients found in cow’s milk—protein, vitamin D, and calcium—are somewhat counteracted by the saturated fat content as well as high concentration of vitamin A, which can actually weaken your bones.
Which of Our 10 Favorite Milk Alternatives Is Right for You?
Each non-dairy milk alternative has its own unique nutritional profile you’ll need to consider when deciding which one is best for you.
1. Almond Milk
Since 2014, almond milk has been designated the most popular milk alternative in the world. Almond milk is made from soaking ground almonds in filtered water. The water is then tossed, and the grounds are blended to a very fine consistency. The larger chunks are strained through a fine-mesh sieve, and the remaining liquid is the deliciously non-dairy almond milk.
It’s believed that almond milk may also be one of the oldest milk alternatives, with its existence traced back to the Middle Ages. Noble households who did not like animal milk would favor it as an alternative.
Almond milk possesses some of the same health benefits as the almonds they are derived from. Almonds are a superfood and the most nutritionally dense nut on the planet. One ounce of almonds can contain 6 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and several other beneficial vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, riboflavin, and potassium.
Unfortunately, it’s quite tricky to put an accurate number on how many almonds make it into the final version of the milk, although most milk packages and producers indicate that almond milk contains only 2% of actual almonds. Because of this, the nutritional value of almond milk does become minimized exponentially. For example, instead of 6 grams of protein in fresh almonds, almond milk only contains about 1 gram. However, most manufacturers fortify the milk with additional nutrients, particularly calcium and vitamins A and D.
Those seeking milk alternatives in hopes of improving their digestion should read the ingredients lists closely. It’s common for almond milk manufacturers to use carrageenan, a thickener and emulsifier, that helps give almond milk a pleasant, creamy texture. Unfortunately, some studies have linked carrageenan to ulcers, stomach inflammation, and other digestive issues. Look for brands made without added emulsifiers and thickeners, or with less problematic options such as guar gum, gellan gum, or sunflower lecithin.
Perhaps the best way to ensure your almond milk is as nutritionally dense as possible and free of unwanted additives is to make it yourself. While this does take more effort than popping a carton into your shopping cart, it’s less complicated than you might think.
Why Not Try This Easy Almond Milk Recipe?
It’s super easy to make fresh almond milk, and it’s possible that with this recipe you may not even reach for the prepackaged kind you can find at your local grocery store.
A word of caution though: fresh almond milk only lasts a few days in the refrigerator so it’s not something you’ll want to make in bulk. Just make what you think you’ll drink in a few days.
Also, the ratio of 1 cup almonds to 2 cups water is pretty standard and will produce about 2 cups of fresh almond milk. The milk will have a consistency similar to 2% cow’s milk. If you prefer thinner milk, use more water the next time you make it. For thicker milk, use less water. Feel free to experiment with different water to almond ratios to find the one that suits you and your preferences the best.
2. Soy Milk
Soy has been harvested and grown in China since about 3000 BC. It was such a staple in ancient Chinese culture that it ranked as one of the five sacred crops.
Soy milk is naturally lactose free, making it a popular dairy milk alternative for centuries. Convenient, as it’s common for individuals of Asian descent to be lactose intolerant. As interest in alternative milks has spread, this ancient Chinese mainstay has become quite mainstream.
In East Asian cuisines, soy milk appears in a range of dishes. In China, you’ll find both sweet and savory breakfast dishes made with soy milk while in Japan and Korea, it’s often used as a base for soups. It’s a common beverage too.
Soy milk is naturally low in fat and cholesterol—comparable to 2% milk. It’s high in protein as well as antioxidants that can provide a boost to your immune system. While raw soy milk is quite low in calcium, many nutrients, including vitamins A and D, are fortified into the commercially available versions of soy milk, making it a competitive cow’s milk alternative.
Soy milk is believed to help fight prostate cancer as well as several other types of cancer. It’s also a preventative for osteoporosis and can provide relief from some symptoms of menopause including hot flashes and weight gain.
It is worth noting, however, that some studies indicate that soy milk can increase your risk for breast cancer. Such theories stem from the high levels of phytoestrogens found in soy. This has led some experts to recommend that if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, or if you have a family history of breast cancer, you should refrain from consuming large amounts of soy milk.
4. Oat Milk
Just as with almond milk, oat milk is not as nutrient-dense as the whole oats it’s made from. That said, commercially made oat milk is enriched to provide an enhanced nutrient profile. You can typically get 3 grams of protein, plus vitamin B12, riboflavin, and other nutrients from a cup of oat milk. Also, oats contain special compounds called beta-glucans that studies have linked to fortified heart and immune system health.
While oat milk has only become a trendy option for lattes of late, it’s actually been on the market for quite some time. Research dating back to the late ’90s indicates that oat milk offers health benefits like lower cholesterol levels. Oat milk also wins points for its mild flavor and pleasantly creamy texture, though detractors say it can have some chalkiness.
Keep in mind that not all oat milk is gluten free, so check labels closely if that’s an irritant for you.
5. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk may be the most nutritionally packed of all the milk alternatives. The milk is made by squeezing liquid from grated coconut meat. A thicker, more full-fat coconut milk (with about 20-22% fat content) is traditionally used in desserts or sauces that require a thicker consistency, whereas lower fat coconut milk (5-7% fat) is used as a standard milk replacement in smoothies, coffee, or other general sauces.
Coconut milk has been linked to several health benefits including:
- Reduced risk of certain cancers
- Lower blood pressure
- Diabetes prevention
- Maintenance of a healthy cardiovascular system
- Weight management
- Improved eye health
- Better memory and cognitive function
About 90% of the calories in coconut milk come from its saturated fat content. Don’t panic, though, these are healthy fats, particularly the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Evidence suggests MCTs can help support weight loss, in part by decreasing cravings, and improve cholesterol levels.
6. Cashew Milk
Made using a similar process to that of almond milk, this non-dairy, plant-based milk has a slightly sweet, subtly nutty flavor. It’s a fairly good source of nutrients like:
Calcium content can vary quite significantly between brands. So Delicious, a go-to for non-dairy milk and ice cream, contains a mere 10% of your daily recommended intake while Silk, another supermarket standby, gives you a full 45%.
Cashew milk can replace cow’s milk in most recipes and is especially popular as a creamer option for coffees.
7. Hemp Milk
This milk substitute is made from water and shelled hemp seeds. It’s a wonderful source of rich heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and provides all the essential amino acids, making it a great plant-based protein source. Plus, it’s easy to find varieties that have been infused with other important nutrients, including riboflavin, vitamin D2, and vitamin B12.
Hemp milk is a perfect pick for those with sensitive stomachs, since it’s free of oligosaccharides, complex sugars that can cause flatulence. It has a very unobtrusive flavor and blends well in both savory and sweet dishes.
One drawback can be cost—hemp milk is typically on the pricier end of the available milk options.
8. Pea Milk
If protein content is a major factor for you, you’ll definitely want to consider pea milk. Pea milk typically contains around 8 grams of protein per cup, the same amount of protein found in cow’s milk. That’s quite impressive for the world of non-dairy alternatives. Better still, it offers a stunning 50% more calcium than dairy milk does.
It’s also more environmentally friendly than dairy milk and other top plant-based contenders like almond and soy milk. Plus, many feel it more accurately mimics the taste and texture of cow’s milk.
You might be wondering how that can be, given that peas are hardly known for their creaminess. According to Adam Lowry, co-founder of Ripple, one of the first companies to bring pea milk to the masses, it took a full year to get the flavor right. The secret was finding a way to separate pea protein and the other beneficial nutrients from the parts of peas responsible for their vegetal taste and color.
9. Rice Milk
Rice milk is the third most popular milk alternative, behind almond milk and soy milk respectively. It’s an excellent option for those who have dairy, soy, and nut allergies, since it’s significantly more hypoallergenic than all other milk products, both dairy and otherwise.
Rice milk is most commonly made from brown rice although it can also be made from other rice grains. Most commercial rice milk is pressed through a mill to strain the pressed grains. Sometimes, however, it’s made using rice flour or by boiling a significant amount of rice in water, the favored approach of DIY enthusiasts, who then blend the cooked rice with water and strain out any chunks.
Many rice milk varieties are unsweetened, since a natural enzymatic process occurs in rice milk that turns carbohydrates into sugar, providing natural sweetness.
While loaded with antioxidants and B vitamins, rice milk is pretty low in calcium compared to some other milk alternatives. It’s also not an ideal choice for people with diabetes or those watching their carbohydrate intake, as 1 cup of rice milk contains 33 grams of carbs.
It is, however, low in fat and cholesterol and can boost the immune system, as it is higher in manganese and selenium than dairy milk as well as all the other dairy-free milk alternatives on this list.
10. Lactose-Free Milk
Regular dairy milk contains the milk sugar lactose. Lactose-free milk is essentially regular dairy milk with lactase added to break down the lactose. This makes it possible to drink dairy milk without experiencing the digestive and gastrointestinal issues that are common to those with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance.
Otherwise, the milk is mostly the same as regular dairy milk, although the addition of the lactase tends to make the milk taste a bit sweeter. It also has a much longer shelf life than regular dairy milk at about 60-90 days.
Each of these milk alternatives is worth considering as you stroll the aisles of your grocery store on the hunt for a more agreeable milk replacement.
Depending on your sensitivities, you may be limited to which milk will work for you. If not, know that some taste a bit better heated up or in a sauce (like coconut milk) while others are perfectly fine cold (almond and soy milk).
You may want to experiment with more than one option. Try them out in a smoothie or with your cereal. Each milk has a slightly different flavor profile. Perhaps consider throwing a banana and a scoop of VeggieShake with a cup of soy, rice, or almond milk into your blender to help you figure out which one is right for you!