For many years, the main substitute for cow milk was soy milk.1 Nowadays, there are many, many more milk alternatives to cow milk. Each alternative has its own distinct flavor, texture, and nutritional profile. Nutritionally, they are all distinctly different from cow’s milk. Read on to learn about dairy alternatives as well as five of the best non-dairy milk substitutes.
How Does Real Dairy Milk Compare To Milk Alternatives?
Cow’s milk is one of the most widely-consumed foods in the world. It’s poured into breakfast cereals, used as a base for smoothies, added to coffee or tea, fermented into cheese, combined with chocolate to make sweet confections, and consumed on its own in a glass.
Most cow’s milk is fairly inexpensive, easy to find, and full of nutritional benefits. Although it contains nearly 88% water, it’s also packed with all the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) and enzymes.2
Cow’s milk is also an important source of nutrients, including:
- Vitamin D
On the flip side, cow’s milk is relatively high in calories. Whole milk (3.25%) contains 148 calories per cup, while 2% milk contains 122 calories per cup.4,5
Why Drink Alternative Milks?
Cow’s milk may not be suitable for all people. Reasons why many people cannot tolerate it include:
Milk allergies occur in approximately 1-3% of kids under 3 years old. An allergic reaction may occur if the body reacts to one or both milk proteins (casein or whey). Outcomes may include hives, upset stomach, vomiting, and more.6,7
Many people cannot digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products. These people lack enough of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the lactose. For adults who have lactose intolerance, consuming dairy milk that contains lactose may cause bloating, gas, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.8
In some cases, people choose not to consume dairy products. Their reasoning may include a strong sense of ethics and compassion for animals, a stance against the meat industry, or a statement against the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries.9
Perceived Health Risks
There are other reasons why people may seek dairy alternatives. Some people believe that there is too much saturated fat in milk and other dairy products.10 Still others are concerned about traces of pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones in conventional dairy milk.11,12,13
Some Alternative Dairy Milks
Lactose-free milk is available on the market to provide an option for people with lactose intolerance. The lactose in the milk is not technically removed, though. Manufacturers add the lactase enzyme to the milk to predigest the sugar and break it down into glucose and galactose, two other sugars. Then the milk is ultra pasteurized to deactivate the added lactase enzyme. You can also make lactose-free milk at home by purchasing lactase and adding it to your milk. It takes about 24 hours for it to digest the lactose.14
Goat’s milk has a different nutritional profile from cow’s milk. This includes lower concentrations of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, as well as calcium. On the other hand, its lactose concentration has been shown to be slightly lower than that of cow’s milk. This makes goat’s milk somewhat less disruptive than cow’s milk for people with mild lactose intolerance.15
In addition to its lactose profile, goat’s milk also has the added benefit of having a much higher concentration of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) than cow’s milk. These fatty acids – caproic, caprylic, and capric acid – are known for being supportive of cardiovascular health. They also contribute to goat milk’s distinct flavor.16
Five Best Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives (in no particular order)
1. Soy Milk
Soy milk was the first popular plant milk. From the 1970s until the beginning of the 21st century, it was the best-selling milk substitute. It’s easy to see why: soy is creamy. And if you add some sugar and thickeners, you can mask the soybean flavor. It also works well in coffee and ice cream.17
Although cow’s milk has been shown to be the most nutritionally well-rounded of all milks, soy is the most comparable. It has the most protein of any plant milk and has been used as a source of protein for people on a vegetarian diet; it contains numerous beneficial phytonutrients; and it is even higher in folate and vitamin B12 than cow’s milk.18,19
2. Almond Milk
Almond milk is the most popular plant-based milk, with 63% of the total plant-based milk market. It’s popular in part due to its taste, texture, and relatively low amount of calories, fat, and carbohydrate content.20
Unsweetened almond milk contains less protein content than soy and dairy milk, although it is a good source of vitamins A and E.21
One of the downsides of store-bought almond milks is the phytic acid. Phytic acid is an antinutrient that may impair the body’s absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium.22
Another downside centers around concerns for its sustainability: Most almonds are grown in drought-stricken California, where it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond to maturity.23
3. Rice Milk
Rice milk is another alternative to dairy milk that is often consumed by people who are lactose intolerant and vegan. It is made from brown rice. It has the highest carbohydrate quantity of the major plant milks. Its benefits include being free of saturated fat and cholesterol. Unflavored versions contain almost zero sugar, although flavored versions could be very high in sugar. The fat in rice milk is mostly monounsaturated, as opposed to soy milk, flaxseed milk, and hemp milk, which contain most polyunsaturated fat.24
On the flipside, rice milk contains almost no protein and no calcium. Just as with most plant-based milks, rice milk is almost always fortified with calcium.25 Also, rice milk, like all rice products, contains a measurable amount of arsenic, so it is advised to limit consumption to 1-3 servings per week. In terms of sustainability, rice requires a huge amount of water to grow, ranking just behind almond milk among plant-based milks.26
4. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is a relative newcomer to the world of plant-based milk alternatives. It is typically made from filtered water and coconut cream. Although it contains a lot more saturated fat than other plant milks, those fats are mostly in the form of MCTs, as with goat’s milk. Unsweetened coconut milk is low in sugar and protein, and it’s usually fortified with calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin B12 to mimic the amounts in cow’s milk.27
5. Oat Milk
Oat milk has become all the rage lately. It is now the second-most popular plant milk (after almond milk).
When it comes to nutrition, oat milk has many potential benefits: Oats are a good source of protein and fiber; they contain antioxidants and polyphenols; and they’re free of common allergens such as dairy, lactose, soy, and nuts. They’re also naturally gluten free.28 Most importantly, oat milk goes very well with coffee, cereal, and smoothies.
Despite its obvious health benefits, oat milk lacks calcium and vitamin D, both essential nutrients for human development.29 Therefore, commercial oat milk producers fortify their oat milks with both of these, along with vitamin A and riboflavin. Oat milk also contains a significant amount of phytic acid, the same antinutrient as almond milk.30 It is relatively high in carbohydrates and calories (stick with unsweetened). And it doesn’t provide a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, something that dairy and soy do provide.31
How To Choose Your Alternative Milk
There are at least 16 different types of non-dairy milks on the market in the United States. In addition to the plant milks profiled above, other popular and up-and-coming alternatives to milk include: pea milk, hemp milk, flax milk, walnut milk, banana milk, hazelnut milk, macadamia milk, quinoa milk, and black sesame seed milk.32
With so many non-dairy milk alternatives on the market, how do you choose which options are the best for you?
In terms of nutrition, there is no suitable option made from plants that can fully replace cow’s milk. If you’re looking at dairy alternatives for protein, they all have lower amounts of protein than cow’s milk, except for soy milk, pea milk, and flaxseed milk.33
Oat milk has a similar amount of calories as cow’s milk (130 vs. 148 per cup). Almond, rice, coconut, hemp, and cashew milk all have fewer calories than oat milk.34
When it comes to sugar, all unsweetened plant-based milks have less than the naturally-occuring lactose in cow’s milk. However, sweetened plant-based non-dairy alternatives are often loaded with added sugar.35
Finally, cow’s milk has the most naturally-occurring calcium, much higher than almond milk and soy milk. However, that is because calcium is fortified to mimic its levels in cow’s milk.36
Each of the various types of alternative milks has a different ingredient list. You may want to read the nutrition facts panel to compare ingredients across plant milks. Some plant-based milks contain thickeners and emulsifiers, like gellan gum, sunflower oil, and locust bean gum, as well as lots of vitamins and minerals added in to fortify the milk. Others contain tons of added sugar. Again, always go for the unsweetened variety of whatever milk alternative you choose.
Flavor and Taste
Sometimes, it comes down to which flavor profile you prefer: Do you like a strong flavor, a sweet flavor, or a nutty flavor? Do you prefer a creamy taste or a nutty taste? You might have to experiment a bit trying different kinds of milks to find the one that suits you best.
How To Make Your Choice
Milk alternatives can help enhance your favorite foods in countless ways. Ask yourself: What are you using the milk for? Coffee? Cereal? Smoothies? How does your body react to the main ingredient? Is it nutritionally satisfying? Ultimately, though, choosing the right milk substitutes comes down to your personal dietary needs, coupled with a lot of knowledge around the pros and cons of both dairy and non-dairy milk substitutes.
33 https://www.themanual.com/food-and-drink/best-plant-based-milks-benefits/ https://nutrition.org/going-nuts-about-milk-heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-plant-based-milk-alternatives