Cow’s milk has been a staple for many people for a very long time. We use it in our tea and coffee, pour it onto our breakfast cereals and drink it fresh from a very young age. We have been encouraged to drink milk from childhood because it contains a number of valuable nutrients. When you think of milk, you think of calcium and its importance to healthy growth and development but it is also a good source of various other healthy nutrients.
Unfortunately, not everybody can tolerate dairy milk or choose not to consume animal products. If you are one of the many people who need to find an alternative, there are plenty of choices. They may taste different but they also contain plenty of healthy nutrients and come with a variety of their own health benefits.
Alternatives to Cow’s Milk
1) Soy Milk
Soy milk is among the most popular dairy milk substitutes. It is made with soybeans and sometimes contains thickening agents which improve its consistency.
It has a mild, creamy flavor and complements coffee and cereal very well but taste can vary from brand to brand. Soy milk is very close to cow’s milk in terms of the nutrition it can provide. It has a very similar amount of protein making it a suitable choice for vegans. It also contains only half the amount of calories, carbohydrates and fat making it a good option for people watching their weight.
Soy milk is one of the only plant sources of ‘complete’ protein meaning it provides you with all the essential amino acids that you can only obtain from dietary sources.
Soy milk contains a very high level of isoflavones. These compounds are linked to a number of health benefits but they are also controversial because of their estrogen-like effects. However, the bulk of the research done on the effects of soy isoflavones suggests that there is little risk of side effects when you consume soy milk or soy protein in moderation.
2) Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is another possible substitute for dairy milk. The coconut milk we are talking about here is not as concentrated as the canned coconut milk commonly used in Indian and Asian cuisine. It is a more dilute version usually available in cartons.
The texture of coconut milk is creamy and the dilute version has a sweet but slightly subtle coconut taste. A cup of coconut milk contains just 45 calories and only four grams of fats. Unlike soy milk, it contains no protein and is almost entirely devoid of carbohydrates.
Being so low in calories and carbohydrates, coconut milk is a good option for people looking to lose weight bit unfortunately, its lack of protein means it is not the best choice for people who need more protein in their diet.
The vast majority of coconut milk’s calories come from the saturated fat content including one type of fat called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Research suggests that these particular saturated fats can help reduce appetite and assist with weight loss. (1)
When it comes to its effects on cholesterol levels, research results have been mixed. There is some evidence that the MCTs found in coconut milk can improve overall cholesterol levels while other studies indicate that it increases LDL cholesterol levels. (2) (3)
Unfortunately, there have been very few studies specifically looking at the health effects of coconut milk. Consuming moderate amounts should not be any cause for great alarm.
3) Almond Milk
Almond milk is growing in popularity and is used by many people as an alternative to traditional dairy milk. It is made either from whole almonds or from almond butter combined with water.
Almond milk has a sweet but subtle almond flavor and makes an excellent addition to tea and coffee. It is also a great ingredient in smoothies or as a direct milk substitute in your dessert recipes.
Almond milk could be really good for your waistline. A cup of almond milk provides you with just 30 calories or around a quarter of those contained on cow’s milk. It also contains just half the fat of dairy milk at 2.5 grams and is also much lower in carbohydrates. However, almond milk is unlikely is also lower in protein than dairy milk with just one gram of protein a cup.
Almond milk is also an excellent source of antioxidants in the shape of vitamin E. Antioxidants play a key role in a person’s health by protecting the body against disease caused by free radicals.
Unfortunately, almond milk does not provide you with all the nutritional value of almonds themselves like healthy fats, minerals and fiber. Almond milk consists mostly of water and some brands contain as little as 2% almonds. Try to buy almond milk with a higher almond content of around 10 to 15% in order to get the most from your milk.
4) Cashew Milk
This is another milk derived from nuts produced wither with wither cashew nuts and water or cashew butter with water.
Like almond milk, it has a subtle nutty taste and a very rich, creamy texture making it a great addition to smoothies, desserts and coffee.
Once again, the production process means you lose many of the nutrients you would be getting from the nuts themselves including minerals, fiber and protein.
However, cashew milk is pretty low in calories at around 20-50 calories a cup which is just a third of the calories contained in dairy milk. It also contains just two to four grams of fat but only a gram of protein.
If you have higher protein requirements, cashew milk may not be the best option. Soy and oat milk for example may be better options.
But for those of you who want a healthy alternative to dairy with fewer calories, fats and carbs, unsweetened cashew milk is a great option perfect for people looking to lose weight and diabetics alike.
5) Rice Milk
This milk is made from either milled white rice or brown rice mixed with water and like other non dairy milk also contains thickening agents to improve texture.
It contains no allergens making it an excellent option for people with allergies to not only dairy but also soy, gluten and nuts.
Rice milk has a very mild and slightly sweet flavor but the consistency is quite watery compared with some of the other options. Nevertheless, it makes a decent addition to cereals, smoothies and oatmeal.
It is higher in calories than some of our other non dairy options. In fact, the 130 or so calories it contains in each cup is very similar to cow’s milk. It also contains around two to three grams of protein and is significantly higher in carbohydrates than the others on our list. In fact, a cup of rice milk contains double the carbohydrates of cow’s milk so it is not at all suitable for people looking to reduce their carb and calorie intake.
Rice milk also has a very high glycemic index of between 79 and 92 meaning that it is absorbed in the gut quickly and raises blood glucose levels. This makes it unsuitable for people with diabetes.
Studies have demonstrated that rice milk contains inorganic arsenic which is found naturally on our environment. Exposure to this chemical long-term has been linked to health issues like heart disease and cancer.
6) Oat Milk
Oats are really good for you and in its most simple form, oat milk contains just oats and plain water. However, many brands contain thickening agents, salt and oils which improve texture and enhance flavor.
Oat milk has a mild flavor and is naturally quite sweet. You can use it in your cooking as a substitute for cow’s milk or add it to smoothies, cereal and coffee.
Oat milk is not a low-calorie substitute and contains roughly the same number of calories as cow’s milk at around 150 to 170 calories a cup. It also contains double the number of carbohydrates but about half the amount of fat as cow’s milk. It is higher in protein than some of our other options but contains only about half the protein of dairy milk.
Here is the really good news, oat milk is a good source of dietary fiber including beta glucans which come with a number of health benefits. In studies, beta glucans have been linked to improved heart health and reduced cholesterol.
A number of studies have been done into the positive effects of beta glucans but one study looked at the effects of oat milk specifically. The male participants with high cholesterol levels drank 750 ml of oat milk each day for five weeks. Researchers found that it helped reduce their total cholesterol levels by 3% and their LDL cholesterol levels by up top 5%. (4)
Despite being higher in calories and carbohydrates, oat milk may be suitable for people looking to lose weight. There is good evidence that oats and beta glucans can help increase satiety and reduce hunger throughout the day.
Read more about how oats can help you lose weight here.
7) Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is actually made with the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant which is more famous for producing cannabis or marijuana. Do not expect to get high on this drink – unlike marijuana, the seeds used to make the milk contain just trace levels of THC which is the mind altering chemical found in marijuana.
The taste of hemp milk is nutty and slightly sweet and the texture is thin and watery, It does not make a great substitute for recipes that need a creamy texture but if you enjoy skimmed milk then it works just fine.
Hemp milk is quite low in calories with a cup providing you with between 60 and 80 along with around five to eight grams of fat. It is a good option for vegans since it also contains between two and three grams of complete protein along with the important amino acids. Hemp milk is also a good source of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Some Considerations When Choosing a Non-Dairy Milk
- Dietary Needs : You may have a requirement for more protein in your diet or be looking to lose weight. Look for the best option for your needs.
- Tolerance : Many people have allergies to the soy, nuts and gluten contained in plant-based milks.
- Added Sugar : Many brands add a lot of sugar to their milk. Try sticking to unsweetened brands and checking the label for sugar content.
- Calcium : Dairy milk is famous for its high level of calcium linked to bone health and strength. Because of this, many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium. Choose one with 120 mg or more of calcium per 100 ml.
- Additives : Many non-dairy flavors of milk contain additives like carageenan and other thickening agents. You may want to avoid these additives so check the labels carefully.
- Cost : Most plant-based milk is more expensive than dairy, you can cut costs by making your own milk at home.