The dairy milk we buy in the stores comes from mammals, such as cows, goats, sheep, and camels. It contains a variety of nutrients and has long been associated with a number of health benefits.

Recently, however, some people have started avoiding animal-derived milk due to health and other concerns.

These include allergies and lactose intolerance, concerns over hormones in the milk, a possible increase in the risk of certain cancers and diabetes, and ethical issues regarding the use of animals.

As a result, various types 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 are derived from plant sources such as nuts, seeds, and grains.

Fast facts about milk substitutes:

Here are some key points about milk substitutes. More detail is in the main article.

  • People who wish to stop using dairy milk can now choose from a range of plant-based options.
  • Milk alternatives include soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk and hemp milk.
  • Each type has a slightly different nutritional profile, so it is important to check you are getting all the nutrients you need.
  • Some plant-based milks are not suitable for children, but it is possible to consume a balanced diet without dairy products.

Soy milk is one alternative to dairy milk, but there are now many others, too.Share on Pinterest
Soy milk is one alternative to dairy milk, but there are now many others, too.

Cow's milk is a significant source of protein, vitamin D, vitamin A, and calcium.

One 8-ounce (or 240-gram) cup of low-fat (2 percent) diary milk contains:

A person who is giving up dairy milk needs to find these nutrients elsewhere.

Some milk alternatives have a similar nutritional profile to that of dairy milk. Many naturally contain calcium, or they are fortified with calcium. Many are also fortified with vitamins D and A.

Some, however, may lack certain nutrients, so it is important to know what you are getting.

A range of milk alternatives is available for people who do not wish to use dairy milk.

Soy milk

Soy milk is a popular alternative to dairy milk. It is made from the extract of soybeans, and it comes in sweetened, unsweetened, and flavored varieties, such as chocolate and vanilla.

Like cow's milk, soy milk is often fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D, and riboflavin, and it has 7 to 10 g of protein per serving. This makes it the most similar alternative to cow's milk in terms of nutrition profile.

One 8-ounce cup of plain soy milk contains the following nutrients:

  • 79 calories
  • 4 g of carbohydrate, including 1 g of sugar
  • 7 g of protein
  • 4 g of fat
  • 120 IU of vitamin D
  • 3 mcg of vitamin B 12
  • 300 mg of calcium
  • 300 mg of potassium
  • 0 mg of cholesterol
  • 1 g of fiber

Different brands will have a slightly different composition, depending on the flavor, whether it is sweetened or unsweetened, and what vitamins and minerals are added.

Soy milk may also contain natural compounds called isoflavones. Isoflavones have been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Consuming at least 10 mg of isoflavones a day has also been linked to a 25-percent decrease in breast cancer recurrence.

Soy consumption may be beneficial for women during and after menopause. Soy contains compounds called phytoestrogens, which may mimic the activity of estrogen in the body. These compounds may help relieve the impact of dramatic declines in estrogen during menopause.

Some sources have also suggested that soy may reduce hot flashes. However, people may process phytoestrogens from soy differently, so its important to listen to your body and notice any changes from an increase in soy.

Some soy milk is made from genetically modified soya. However, soy milk that is certified as non-GMO, or not a genetically modified organism, is available in many places.

Soy milk is not a suitable replacement for breastmilk or formula.

Almond milk

Almond milk is made from ground almonds, water, and, in most cases, a sweetener. It may also be fortified with vitamins and minerals. It has a creamy texture, similar to that of dairy milk. It has been described as "America's favorite plant-based milk."

An 8-ounce serving of one particular brand of almond milk would provide around 8.5 grams of protein, less than the amount found in dairy milk and soy milk.

Almonds contain a high amount of vitamin E. Fortified almond milk may contain vitmain E if it is fortified, but it has more water than almonds. It is better to eat almonds to get the benefits of vitamin E.

Unless fortified, almond milk lacks the vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids that are present in dairy milk. Because of this, it is not a suitable alternative to breastmilk or formula for infants.

Depending on how much sugar is added, it may contain fewer calories than cow's milk. Different brands also contain different amounts of almonds and added nutrients, so it is best to check the package before buying.

Almond milk may be used in ice creams and other items. Other nut milks include cashew, hazelnut, and walnut milk.

Rice milk

Rice milk may be useful for people who are susceptible to allergies. It is often free from soy, gluten, and nuts. However, anyone who has an allergy should check the label before consuming it.

It is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. It is high in carbohydrates and low in protein, compared with dairy milk. The number of calories will depend on whether or not it is sweetened.

According to the USDA, one 8-ounce (or 240-gram) serving of plain, unsweetened rice milk contains:

  • 113 calories
  • 2 g of fat
  • 22 g of carbs
  • 0.67 g of protein
  • 283 mg of calcium
  • 26 mg of magnesium
  • 65 mg of potassium
  • 151 mcg of vitamin A
  • 2.4 mcg of vitamin D2 and D3
  • 0 mg of cholesterol

Rice milk can be quite thin and watery, so it is not especially well suited for use in cooking or baking.

It is not naturally rich in calcium, so it is sensible to choose a variety that is fortified with calcium, if it is intended to replace cow's milk.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk may be the milk alternative with a texture closest to that of whole milk. It is relatively high in fat, with about 5 g of saturated fat per serving.

As it is naturally soy- and gluten-free, coconut milk is often a good choice for those with multiple food allergies, although it is important to check that it was produced in a facility free from such allergens.

Along with most nut milks, 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 the ingredients, it will probably contain less protein than dairy milk.

Hemp milk

Hemp milk is another option for those allergic to soy, nuts, and gluten. It is made from hulled hemp seeds, water, and, in most cases, sweeteners.

It is a good source of protein and has an excellent fatty acid profile, but it is relatively low in calcium, unless fortified.

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

Alternatives to standard dairy milk

If a person has a lactose intolerance, but they still wish to drink cow's milk, there is also lactose-free dairy milk.

Organic, raw, and unpasteurized cow's milk is also available for those who are concerned about the presence of hormones and antibiotics in milk. However, some of these products, such as raw milk, may pose other health risks that are not present in standard pasteurized milk.

Anyone looking to replace dairy products without making other dietary changes should be sure to choose a non-dairy alternative that is closest in nutritional profile to that of their current products.

The consumer should always check the label on the package, because both dairy milk and milk alternatives are often fortified with different amounts of additional nutrients, and milk alternatives often have added sugars.

Whether you choose milk or a milk alternative, it needs to be part of a healthy, balanced plant-based 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 planning, a diet without dairy products can be healthful for people at any age.