Lactose intolerance, milk allergies, food sensitivities, and an increase in consumer demand have led to a rise in the availability of non-dairy beverages. (26) With options ranging from nut and seed milk, such as almond and hemp, to varieties sourced from grains (e.g., rice, oats) or legumes (e.g., soy, pea), choosing a suitable alternative can seem overwhelming. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of non-dairy milk alternatives.
Why choose dairy-free milk alternatives?
An allergy to cow’s milk typically presents during infancy and affects approximately 3% of infants worldwide. Although a milk allergy is possible in adults, many children outgrow their allergy, with only 1% of people over six being affected. (5) Symptoms of a milk allergy can vary from diarrhea to a severe, life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. (5) Individuals with a milk allergy must strictly avoid all foods and beverages containing cow’s milk to prevent allergic reactions. Instead of cow’s milk, dairy-free foods and beverages are suitable alternatives.
It’s important to note that non-dairy beverages are not substitutes for infant formula. If your infant is allergic to cow’s milk, speak to your pediatrician.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine does not produce enough of the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digesting the naturally-occurring sugar found in milk, known as lactose. In contrast to an allergy, lactose intolerance does not necessitate complete avoidance of dairy-containing foods and typically presents with minor, yet uncomfortable, gastrointestinal symptoms, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea. (25) Limiting or avoiding foods and beverages containing lactose can significantly reduce these symptoms. (13)
It’s estimated that between 28 and 70% of people worldwide poorly digest lactose, with a greater prevalence of lactose intolerance among individuals in Asian and African countries. (22) Non-dairy beverages and lactose-free milk are appropriate alternatives for those struggling with the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Beyond personal taste preferences, many people choose to avoid dairy products for health or ethical reasons. (3) Non-dairy milk alternatives are widely sourced from plants, making them suitable for vegans and other individuals who choose to avoid dairy.
Best milk alternatives
There are several milk alternatives commercially available today. Some of the most popular and prevalent typesof non-dairy options are described below.
Almond milk, which is produced by soaking and grinding almonds in water then filtering out the solids, has emerged as one of the most popular non-dairy beverages in North America. (26) Its mild flavour lends to its versatility, making it perfect for baking or enjoying with your morning bowl of oatmeal or cereal.
Almond milk contains very little protein, and its nutritional profile differs significantly from that of cow’s milk. (26) To improve their nutritional value, almond beverages and many other non-dairy beverages are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, B12, D, and E, as well as calcium. (26)
Soy milk is produced by soaking soybeans in water, then grinding, boiling, and filtering the liquid. (19) Thanks to its high protein content, soy milk is the most nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk of all plant-based non-dairy beverages available. (19) Plain, unsweetened soy milk can be used in sweet or savoury recipes, just like you’d use cow’s milk.
Rice milk is produced by mixing milled rice and water to create a white, milky liquid. Characterized by a mild, sweet flavour, rice milk is tasty when used in fruit smoothies or added to breakfast cereals. Rice milk is one of the least allergenic non-dairy milk substitutes, making it a suitable alternative to cow’s milk for individuals with multiple food allergies or sensitivities. Compared to cow’s milk, rice milk contains high amounts of carbohydrates and minimal protein and fat. (26)
Coconut milk is produced by grating the white flesh of a coconut and mixing it with hot water. Not only is coconut milk a tasty beverage, but full-fat coconut milk (found in a can) adds richness and flavour to many savoury dishes such as curries and soups.
Although low in protein, coconut milk is rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium. (20) Coconut milk is delicious when added to smoothies or your morning bowl of cereal.
One of the most recent plant-based beverages to emerge on grocery store shelves is oat milk, a creamy, slightly sweet liquid produced by blending oats with water and straining out the solids. Since it’s produced using grains, unsweetened oat milk contains more carbohydrates than nut- or legume-based non-dairy beverages, such as almond or soy milk. (20)
Oats are widely known for their heart health-promoting properties, primarily attributed to their fiber content. (16)
Whether it’s a personal preference or necessary for you to avoid dairy products, non-dairy milk alternatives, such as almond, oat, and soy milk, are all great options. Although most non-dairy beverages are not nutritionally identical to cow’s milk, many are fortified with vitamins and minerals to improve their nutrition profile.