Not so long ago, choices for dairy-free, or plant based milk options were extremely limited. Today, we have a plethora of dairy-free milk alternatives to choose from. They are becoming more popular due to a move to plant based eating, various health reasons, and an increasing interest in environmental sustainability.

From nut milks such as almond, hazelnut and cashew, to other alternatives, such as soy, oat, coconut, hemp, flax, and rice milk. Choosing the best milk type for you boils down to your specific dietary needs and personal taste preferences.

The Difference Between Conventional and Plant Based Milk Options

While cow’s milk is boasted as being rich in calcium and vitamin D, it contains a form of sugar called lactose, which can be difficult for some to digest. This can trigger intolerance symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, skin reactions, and in some cases, respiratory conditions.

Additionally, the proteins found in milk, called whey and casein, are difficult for some people to digest and can be a source of a food sensitivity. Also, milk alternatives are good for people who are moving toward a vegetarian lifestyle.

Milk alternatives are also lower in carbohydrates, calories and fat than conventional cow’s milk. This is be beneficial to those who consume milk regularly. They are also plant based, making them cholesterol free which makes them an easy choice for many to make the switch.

Plant based milk options naturally have a lower fat and cholesterol content. They naturally do not contain lactose, which is the milk sugar that can often cause gastrointestinal upset. They are often fortified with calcium, vitamin D, iron, and vitamin B12 in an effort to make them nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.

From the standpoint of environmental sustainability, plant based milk options require fewer resources to produce than conventional cow’s milk. They are produced with the need for significantly less water and land than is used for dairy farming.

plant based milk

Drawbacks to Plant Based Milk Options

Despite the many benefits of plant based milk options, there are drawbacks as well. These include nutritional value, potential allergens, additives, and expense.

  • Most plant based milks are have different nutritional value than traditional milk. This includes lower protein and calcium, which is often fortified. Additionally other vitamins and minerals are added in effort to reach the nutritional equivalency to cow’s milk.
  •  Many plant based milk options have added sugars, flavors, thickeners, and emulsifiers to improve the mouthfeel, taste, and texture of these milks.
  • Depending on the source of the milk alternative, it may not be suitable to people with allergens. These are common for soy, almonds, or any other tree nuts.
  • Finally, plant based alternatives can be more expensive than conventional milk which can be a barrier to regular consumption.

Overall, plant-based milk alternatives can be a healthy and sustainable alternative to cow’s milk for those who cannot or choose not to consume dairy. However, it is important to consider the potential drawbacks of plant-based milks before making a decision.

Finding the best fit for you

Some things to consider if you want to make a switch to dairy free alternative milks are any medical conditions, gastrointestinal tolerance, and frequency of milk consumption.

Someone concerned with blood sugar management and/or weight loss may benefit from milk alternatives. It would be beneficial to opt for an “unsweetened” or “plain” milk alternative. These are lower in carbohydrates from added sugars, and have low to no fat, added carbs, which makes them low in calories.

People with nut allergies should opt for oat, hemp, or coconut milk. Here’s a further breakdown of milk alternatives to guide you in finding your best fit.

Nut-Based Milk

 Nut-based milks are not only lower in fat and calories than conventional cow’s milk, but may also contain the added benefit of fiber. Most nut milks are made by soaking the nuts in water, then blending and straining the mixture. Many nut milks are relatively shelf-stable, lasting one to two months before  opening.

 Almond Milk

Almond milk was one of the first nut-based milks that became available. It comes in a variety of flavors. These include everything from sweetened or unsweetened and flavored with vanilla or chocolate. The can have choices of added prebiotics or protein added. Most almond milks range from 35-90 calories per cup depending on added sweeteners.

It tends have less viscosity and is lighter in color. This can be a deterrent for some who are looking for an alternative that looks and has the mouthfeel of conventional milk. This is a great substitute milk when baking, and it also blends well in smoothies. To enjoy the full health benefit of almond milk, look for brands with 7-15% almonds such as Blue Diamond Almond Breeze and Silk.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is slightly thicker and more viscous than almond milk. It appears and has the mouthfeel of conventional milk which adds great flavor to teas and tea lattes. The main difference between cashew and almond milk is the thicker viscosity and taste of the milks.

Other Nut-Based Milks

Other nut-based milks include hazelnut, pistachio, peanut, pecan, macadamia, and walnut. These are more likely to be found in health food stores rather than your traditional grocery stores. They offer a slightly different taste which makes them useful depending on your taste preferences.

Other Plant-Based Milk Options

Oat Milk

Oat milk has a heavier, creamier texture, making it similar to cow’s milk. It’s higher in protein and fiber than any other milk alternative. However it generally contains more carbohydrates and calories.  Oat milk is high in beta glucan, a soluble fiber with heart health benefits such as lowering cholesterol. Caution should be taken in those with gluten sensitivities, as some oat milks may be grown or cross-contaminated with gluten.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is a plant-based milk made from soy remnants. Due to the nature of soy it is not generally recommended as an alternative to traditional milk.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk has a creamy consistency, sweet taste, and subtle coconut flavor. Used mainly in soups and curries as it lends rich flavor. As far as nutrition, it is higher in fat and calorie content. However, it can be a good source of protein, coming in at 5g for one cup.

Flax milk

On the thicker side, flax milk is not too sweet and a good choice for those who are dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free and soy-free. This can be a good alternative, as it has slightly higher omega 3 fatty acids than any other milk.

When choosing an alternative to conventional milk, there are now a variety of options that you can choose from. Ultimately the one you choose will depend on your nutritional and health needs, and personal preference. It is worth exploring the variety of options to find the one that works best for you.