Dairy milk comes from mammals, such as cows, goats, sheep, and camels. It contains a variety of nutrients may provide several health benefits. Alternatives to milk are also available.
Many people have stopped using animal-derived milk for a variety of reasons. Some people are unable to drink dairy milk due to allergies or lactose intolerance, while others follow a vegan diet and have an ethical issue with the consumption of animal products.
As a result, a range of non-standard dairy milk and non-dairy milk substitutes are now available.
Each has a different nutritional profile, flavor, color, and texture. Non-dairy products come from plant sources, such as nuts, seeds, and grains.
In this article, we look at the available options and their nutritional content.
Several milk alternatives are available for people who do not wish to consume dairy milk.
One 8-ounce (or 240-gram) cup of low-fat (2 percent) dairy milk contains:
Soy milk is a popular alternative to dairy milk. Historians can trace the use of soy milk back to 1365 in China. Many cultures have used soy milk as a diet staple for centuries.
Today, manufacturers produce soy milk from soybean extract in a process that is similar to the ancient techniques. The milk is available in sweetened, unsweetened, and flavored varieties, such as chocolate and vanilla. There are also options for low fat or full fat varieties.
Producers of soy milk often fortify it with calcium, vitamins A and D, and riboflavin in the same way as manufacturers of dairy milk do. It also contains a similar amount of protein as dairy milk per serving, making it the most similar alternative to cow’s milk in terms of its nutritional profile.
One cup, or 244 grams (g), of plain soy milk contains the following nutrients:
- 105 calories
- 12 g of carbohydrate, including 8.91 g of sugar
- 6.34 g of protein
- 3.59 g of fat
- 2.68 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D
- 2.07 mcg of vitamin B-12
- 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium
- 298 mg of potassium
- 0 mg of cholesterol
- 0.488 g of fiber
Different brands of soy milk will have a slightly different composition, depending on the flavor, whether it is sweetened, or contains any additional vitamins and minerals that manufacturers have added in the fortification process.
Soy milk is unique in that it contains isoflavones, which are natural antioxidants. Isoflavones may have associations with a reduced risk of heart disease. A 2014 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that consuming at least 10 mg of isoflavones a day has links to a 25% decrease in breast cancer recurrence. One serving of soy milk contains about 25 mg of isoflavones.
Consuming soy may be beneficial for women during and after menopause. Soy provides compounds called phytoestrogens, which may mimic the activity of estrogen in the body. A 2015 review and meta-analysis found that these compounds may help relieve some of the effects of menopause without severe adverse effects.
The North American Menopause Society have also suggested that consuming soy may reduce hot flashes. However, people may process phytoestrogens from soy differently, so it is essential to take note of any bodily changes after increasing soy intake. Soy can also have anti-estrogenic effects.
Some soy milk consists of genetically modified (GMO) soy. However, organic soy, or “non-genetically-modified organism” (non-GMO) soy milk is available in many outlets. Both choices are nutritionally equivalent.
Soy milk is not a suitable replacement for breastmilk or formula.
Ground almonds, water, and, in most cases, a sweetener make almond milk, another popular alternative. Manufacturers may also fortify almond milk with vitamins and minerals. It has a creamy texture, similar to that of dairy milk.
One cup of sweetened almond milk would provide only around 1.02 g of protein. This is much less protein than dairy milk and soy milk would provide.
Almonds contain a high amount of vitamin E. Fortified almond milk often contains vitamin E. However, it also has a higher water content than almonds. It is better to eat almonds as a source of vitamin E.
Almond milk does not provide the vitamin, mineral, and fatty acid content of dairy milk unless fortified. Because of this, it is not a suitable alternative to breastmilk or formula for infants unless fortified.
Depending on the amount of added sugar, almond milk may contain fewer calories than cow’s milk. Different brands also contain varying amounts of almonds and added nutrients. It is best to check the information on the package before buying it.
Some people use almond milk when making ice creams and other items. Other types of nut milk include cashew, hazelnut, and walnut milk.
Read more on whether almond milk is safe for infants here.
People who are susceptible to allergies or intolerances for certain foods may find rice milk is a suitable alternative. It is often free from soy, gluten, and nuts. However, anyone who has an allergy should check the label before consuming it.
Rice milk consists of boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. Rice milk is high in carbohydrates and very low in protein when compared with dairy milk. The number of calories will depend on whether or not manufacturers have added sweeteners.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 cup of plain rice milk contains:
- 115 calories
- 2.37 g of fat
- 22.4 g of carbs
- 0.68 g of protein
- 288 mg of calcium
- 26.8 mg of magnesium
- 65.9 mg of potassium
- 154 mcg of vitamin A
- 2.44 mcg of vitamin D2 and D3
- 0 mg of cholesterol
Rice milk is often quite thin and watery, so it is not ideal for use in cooking or baking.
This type of milk is not naturally rich in calcium. Anyone intending to replace cow’s milk with rice might consider choosing a calcium-fortified variety.
Coconut milk is probably the milk alternative with a texture closest to that of whole milk. It is relatively high in fat, with a 1-cup serving providing about 5.08 g of saturated fat.
As it is naturally soy and gluten-free, coconut milk is often a good alternative for those with multiple food allergies. However, it is important to check that the facility that produces the milk operates in an allergen-free environment.
Along with most types of nut milk, coconut milk works well in baked goods because of its nutty flavor.
Although it has a similar texture to dairy milk, its nutritional profile is different. Depending on the brand and ingredients, it will probably contain less protein than dairy milk. According to USDA, 1 cup of coconut milk contains 0.21 g of protein.
Other non-dairy alternatives
Other milk alternatives that are new to the market include:
- quinoa milk
- flax milk
- oat milk
- potato milk
- 7-grain milk, from oats, rice, wheat, barley, triticale, spelt, and millet
- sunflower milk
- hemp milk
Alternatives to standard dairy milk
If a person has a lactose intolerance but still wishes to drink cow’s milk, lactose-free dairy milk is available. Lactose-free dairy milk is nutritionally equivalent to regular dairy milk.
Some consumers have concerns about the presence of hormones or antibiotics in milk, but these fears are unfounded. Manufacturers test dairy milk for any hormones, antibiotics, and any other contaminants at the dairy farm. If they discover any of these contaminants, they will not ship the product for processing.
Because of this concern, many people opt for organic, raw, and unpasteurized cow’s milk.
However, some of these products, such as raw milk, may pose other health risks that are not present in conventional pasteurized milk.
Cow’s milk is a significant source of protein, vitamin D, vitamin A, and calcium, as well as other essential nutrients. Many experts associate diets containing dairy with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. The nutrient profile of milk supports bone health.
One 244-g cup of whole milk provides:
- 7.69 g of protein
- 149 calories
- 276 mg of calcium
- 24.4 mg of magnesium
- 322 mg of potassium
- 112 mcg of vitamin A
- 4.55 g of fatty acids
- 24.4 mg of cholesterol
A person who is giving up dairy milk needs to find these nutrients elsewhere. Some milk alternatives do have a similar nutritional profile to that of dairy milk. Many naturally contain calcium or are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A. Other milk alternatives do not provide the same level of nutrition.
When considering alternative kinds of milk, it is important to read the packaging to understand the nutritional content.
Any person looking to replace dairy products should be sure to choose a non-dairy alternative that is closest in nutritional profile to their current products.
People should always check the label on the package. Manufacturers often fortify both dairy milk and milk alternatives with different amounts of added nutrients, and milk alternatives often have added sugars.
Whether choosing milk or a milk alternative, people should consume it as part of a healthful, balanced diet, alongside fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and pulses.
It is possible to stop using dairy products and obtain the same nutrients elsewhere. With careful planning and the advice of a registered dietitian, a diet without dairy products can be healthful for people of any age.
Will using milk alternatives help me lose weight?
The use of milk alternatives is not a weight loss strategy. A person’s overall diet and the amount of daily physical activity they do is more likely to affect weight loss.
As the article points out, some dairy alternatives have little nutritional value and may contain more sugar.
However, if a person consumes a dairy alternative to replace full-calorie sodas or other high calorie beverages, they may experience weight loss due to reduced calorie intake.Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.