Whether you’re looking for an alternative to cow’s milk for health reasons, personal preference, or just to try something different, you’ll find lots of dairy-free options on your grocer’s shelves for drinking, baking and cooking. Some people make the switch to non-dairy milk after being diagnosed with lactose intolerance. Others eliminate dairy when moving to a vegan diet. Whatever your motivation, this blog offers a rundown of the many different types of non-dairy milk to consider, along with nutritional information, possible health benefits, and serving suggestions.
What’s the Difference Between Non-Dairy and Dairy Free?
If you’re trying to avoid dairy ingredients in everything you eat or drink, it’s important to understand the difference between non-dairy and dairy-free. Non-dairy is a term developed by the dairy industry and supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make a distinction between products that appear to be dairy products (think whipped topping) but are not actually made of milk, cream or butter.
Non-dairy products may still contain “dairy-derived” ingredients like casein (milk solids) and whey (milk liquids). Processed foods and non-dairy creamers and cheeses frequently contain these milk derivatives and should be avoided if you have a milk allergy or intolerance. Dairy-free products contain no dairy ingredients or milk derivatives. Dairy-free milks contain no cholesterol. We’ll focus on dairy-free milk alternatives in this blog.
Milk Made from Nuts and Legumes
Of all the dairy-free milk options available, soy milk is probably the most familiar. Although often referred to as a nut, soy is technically a legume – more closely related to peas and beans, and not at all related to tree nuts (like pecans) or ground nuts (like peanuts).
Soy milk is quite like cow’s milk in terms of nutrition, with nearly as much protein, but far less fat. Most brands of soy milk are fortified with calcium, and some are also fortified with vitamin B12 – an important consideration for anyone on a vegan diet. Soy milk is thicker than some other dairy-free milks, and a good substitute for baking and cooking. Stick with non-sweetened varieties for recipes, especially those which call for sugar, honey or another sweetener. Check with your healthcare provider if you have concerns about soy and its impact on estrogen receptors. Most people can safely consume a reasonable amount of soy milk each day.
Almond milk is a low-fat, lower-calorie alternative to cow’s milk. While it’s significantly lower in protein than cow’s milk, almond milk is a natural source of Vitamin E. Choose brands with a higher almond content, ideally between 7%–15%. Otherwise, you’ll be drinking little more than almond water, and missing out on the nutritional benefits provided by almond nuts. Almond milk can substitute for cow’s milk in baked goods, especially desserts, and is a popular addition to breakfast smoothies. One negative aspect to almond milk is that large-scale almond farms typically use pesticides to maintain good crop yields, and those pesticides have a negative impact on the bees needed to pollinate the almond crop. Many almond growers are exploring pesticide alternatives and improvements to biodiversity to minimize the impact on the bee population.
Similar to almond milk, cashew milk is made from cashews or cashew butter, water and little else. If you’re looking for something different to add to your coffee or smoothie, cashew milk is a good substitute. The process used to make cashew milk strips away most of the protein, fiber and beneficial vitamins and minerals found in whole cashew nuts. Still, its creamy consistency and pleasant flavor make cashew milk a viable low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk, and suitable for many recipes. Macadamia nut milk is like almond and cashew milk in that it is low in calories and carbohydrates – possibly a good option for anyone looking to cut calories. Macadamia nut milk may be more difficult to find than other nut milks since it’s a relatively new addition to the dairy-free milk category. Hazelnut milk Is another tasty nut milk option, but be aware that there are up to 100 calories and nine grams of fat in a one-cup serving of hazelnut milk, depending on the brand you choose.
Coconut milk replaces cow’s milk in all sorts of products, including yogurt, ice cream and other frozen desserts. It is made by combining the white flesh found inside a coconut with water. Coconut milk is available in shelf-stable and refrigerated cartons, and thicker versions that are typically used in recipes are available in cans – either as full fat or lite coconut milk, sweetened or unsweetened. Fat is a consideration here, as 90% of the calories in coconut milk come from saturated fat. The texture and flavor of coconut milk make it a natural addition to a fruity breakfast smoothie and many recipes, both sweet and savory.
Milk Made from Seeds and Grains
For people with soy, dairy or nut allergies, rice milk provides a mild, slightly sweet hypoallergenic alternative. Many people enjoy drinking rice milk on its own. Others use it as an ingredient in dessert recipes, especially puddings, but due to its thin consistency, it’s not a great choice for creating sauces. Like cooked rice, rice milk is high in carbohydrates – three times higher than any of the other dairy-free milk alternatives featured here. It is not a good choice for anyone with diabetes or those who already consume a lot of rice in their regular diet.
If you’re interested in making dairy-free milk at home, oat milk is one to try. It’s inexpensive and simple to make, consisting of just processed oats and water, and you can find instructions online. Most commercial oat milk contains additional ingredients to improve taste, so your homemade version may need some tweaking to get the flavor to your liking. Like oatmeal, oat milk is loaded with soluble fiber, making it a natural choice for anyone looking to reduce their cholesterol. It’s not a low-cal or low-carb substitute, but it does contain more protein than some other dairy-free milks, and the high fiber content can help you feel more full and satisfied. Oat milk can be used in nearly any recipe calling for cow’s milk, enjoyed on cereal or as a drink.
Perhaps the most unusual non-dairy alternative is hemp milk, made from – you guessed it – water and hemp seed. Hemp is one of the most misunderstood food products available. Yes, the seeds are from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, the same species of plant used to make cannabis or marijuana. But hemp seeds contain just trace amounts of THC, the chemical that causes marijuana users to feel “high.” Hemp milk has no mind-altering effect on those who drink it or use it in recipes.
Unsweetened hemp milk is much lower in calories and carbohydrates than cow’s milk. Avoid sweetened varieties to maintain the low-cal, low-carb benefit, as many commercially available hemp milk products are loaded with sugar. Hemp milk has about half the protein of cow’s milk, but it provides high-quality protein with essential amino acids. Hemp milk is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which must be consumed. (Other sources include fatty fish like salmon and nuts.) Because of its thin, watery texture, hemp milk works best as a substitute for skim milk.
Check with Your Healthcare Provider Before Trying These Milk Alternatives
Your doctor may want to consider your overall health and diet before signing off on any of these beverages, especially as you may be unaware of a possible interaction with medication.
Remember these other tips as you consider swapping out skim or 2% for a plant- or nut-based option:
- Dairy products are a great source of calcium and vitamin B12, so choose fortified alternatives.
- Check labels for additives that you may want to avoid.
- Many dairy-free milks have a lot of added sugar. Keep that in mind and check labels before you buy.
- Expect to pay more for dairy-free milks. Most require a fair amount of processing, and that makes them more expensive.