Milk is a highly nutritious food and has long been associated with good health. You can read more about the health benefits of milk here.
For hundreds of years, the only type of milk available was that that came from an animal (most often cows, goats and sheep) and was considered dairy. 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 an extract from a certain plant source.
There are many reasons you might search for an alternative for dairy, the most common being allergies, lactose intolerance and following a vegan diet.
According the Food Allergy Initiative, a cows' milk allergy is the most common food allergy in infants and children.1 Lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy. It 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. Those with an actual milk allergy must strictly avoid milk and dairy in any form.
Some people choose to not consume dairy in order to follow a vegan diet, which avoid any foods that come from an animal, including milk, cheese, eggs and honey. Others may cut dairy out of their diet in order to avoid hormones and antibiotics in conventional milk, as an acne treatment, or when following the popular "Paleo" diet.
Lactose intolerance can cause bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and discomfort.
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.
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.
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.
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.1
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.
There are many alternatives to dairy milk including coconut, almond, soy and rice.
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.
A final thought
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.
Written by: Megan Ware, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and nutritionist