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The best non-dairy milk subsitutes

Cow’s milk is considered a primary component in many people’s diets. It is consumed as a standalone drink, and added to cereal, smoothies, tea or coffee.

While it is the ‘go-to’ choice for many, others can’t or choose not to drink milk due to personal taste, dietary restrictions, convictions, allergies or intolerances.

Luckily, if you’re looking to avoid cow’s milk, there are plenty of non-dairy alternatives to choose from. This article lists the most popular substitutes for cow’s milk.

Reasons to Substitute

Cow’s milk has a remarkable nutrient profile. It’s rich in high-quality protein as well as important vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus and B vitamins.

One cup (240 ml) of whole milk provides 146 calories, 8 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 13 grams of carbohydrates.

However, cow’s milk is not the right choice for everyone because of different reasons, including:

  • Milk allergy: 2–3% of kids under the age of three are allergic to dairy milk. This can cause a range of symptoms, including rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea and severe anaphylaxis. Around 80% of kids outgrow this allergy by age 16.

  • Lactose intolerance: An estimated 75% of the world's population is intolerant to lactose, which is the sugar found in milk. This condition happens when people have a deficiency in lactase, the enzyme that is responsible for digesting lactose.

  • Dietary restrictions: Some people choose to exclude animal products from their diets due to personal convictions, faith, ethical or health reasons. For example, vegans exclude all products that come from or produced by animals, which includes cow’s milk.

  • Potential health risks: Some people choose to avoid cow’s milk due to concerns over potential contaminants, including antibiotics, pesticides and hormones which are all found in products originating in cows.

Can’t or prefer to avoid cow’s milk? That’s not a problem because there are many non-dairy options available. The following list might help you make the right choice for you.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Substitute

With a wide selection of non-dairy milks available, it can be difficult to decide which one is best for you.

Here are a few important things to consider:

  • Added sugar: Sugar is often added to enhance flavour and texture, reduce production costs and cause cravings. Stick with unsweetened varieties over flavoured ones and try to avoid brands that list sugar as one of the first three ingredients.

  • Calcium content: Cow’s milk is rich in calcium, which is vital for healthy bones and preventing osteoporosis. Most non-dairy milks are fortified with calcium, therefore choose one that contains at least 120 mg of calcium per 100 ml.

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products and is essential for a healthy brain and immune system. People who limit or avoid animal products from their diets should choose milk that is fortified with B12 (or take B12 supplements).

  • Cost: Non-dairy milks are often more expensive than cow’s milk. To cut costs, experiment with making plant-based milk at home. However, one downside of making your own milk is that it will not be fortified with calcium and vitamin B12 (but you can purchase these in soluble powder form and add to the milk).

  • Additives: Some non-dairy milks may contain additives such as carrageenan and vegetable gums to achieve a thick and smooth texture. While these additives aren't necessarily unhealthy, some people prefer to avoid them.

  • Dietary needs: Some people have allergies or intolerances to certain ingredients used in plant-based milks, such as gluten, nuts and soy. Make sure to check the labels to be safe.


Soy Milk

Soy milk is made with either soybeans or soy protein isolate, and often contains thickeners and vegetable oils for improving taste and consistency.

It typically has a mild and creamy flavour. Though, the taste can vary between different brands. It seems to fit best as substitute for cow’s milk in savoury dishes, with coffee cereal.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) of unsweetened soy milk contains 80–90 calories, 4–4.5 grams of fat, 7–9 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbohydrates.

In terms of nutrition, soy milk contains a similar amount of protein, but around half the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates compared to cow’s milk.

It is also one of the few plant-based sources of high-quality “complete” protein, which provides all the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids that are not produced by the body and therefore must be obtained from nutrition.

It’s worth noting that, soy has become one of the world’s most controversial foods, and people are often concerned over its effects on the body mostly because of the large amounts of isoflavones in soy which can affect oestrogen receptors in the body and affect the function of hormones.

While the jury is still out on this subject, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that moderate amounts of soy or soy milk will cause harm in otherwise healthy adults.

Lastly, soy milk made from soybeans is not recommended for people with a FODMAP intolerance or who are in the elimination phase of the low-FODMAP diet.

However, soy milk made from soy protein isolate can be consumed as an alternative.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is made with either whole almonds or almond butter mixed with water.

It usually has a light texture and a slightly sweet and nutty flavour. It can be added to coffee and tea, mixed in smoothies and used as a substitute for cow’s milk in desserts and baked foods.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) of unsweetened almond milk contains 30–35 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 1–2 grams of carbohydrates.

It is one of the lowest-calorie non-dairy milks available and is suitable for people on a low-calorie diet.  Compared to cow’s milk, it contains less than a quarter of the calories and less than half the fat. It is also significantly lower in protein and carbohydrates.  In addition, almond milk is a natural source of vitamin E, a group of antioxidants that help protect against free radicals.

However, almond milk packs less of the beneficial nutrients found in whole almonds, including protein, fibre and healthy fats because almond milk is made up of mostly water. In fact, many brands contain only 2% almonds. These are often lightened with the skin removed, which greatly reduces the fibre, protein, vitamin and mineral content.

To make the most of the nutrients and health benefits of almonds, choose brands of almond milk that contain a higher content of almonds, around 7–15%.

Almonds also contain phytic acid, a substance that binds to iron, zinc and calcium to reduce their absorption in the body. This may cause a small decrease in the body’s absorption of these nutrients from almond milk.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is made from water and the white flesh of brown coconuts.  What we can find in our supermarkets is normally a more diluted version of the type of coconut milk commonly used in Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines, which is usually sold in cans.

Coconut milk has a creamy texture and a sweet but subtly noticeable coconut flavour. Typically, one cup (240 ml) contains 45 calories, 4 grams of fat, no protein and almost no carbohydrates.

Compared to cow’s milk, coconut milk contains one-third the calories, half the fat and significantly less protein and carbohydrates.

In actual fact, coconut milk has the lowest protein and carbohydrate content of the non-dairy milks. It may not be the best option for those with higher protein requirements, but it would suit those looking to reduce their carb intake.

In addition, around 90% of the calories from coconut milk come from saturated fat, including a type of saturated fat known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which some research suggests that it help reduce appetite, assist with weight loss and improve blood cholesterol levels more than other fats.

It’s worth noting, however, that a recent review of 21 studies found that coconut oil may raise levels of total and “bad” low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol to a greater extent than unsaturated oils.  Much of this research is based on poor-quality evidence and there is very little research on the effects of coconut milk specifically. Consequently, consuming a moderate amount of coconut milk as part of a healthy diet should not be a cause for concern.

Lastly, it is recommended that people with a FODMAP intolerance, or those who are completing the elimination phase of the FODMAP diet, limit coconut milk to a 1/2-cup (120-ml) portion at a time.

Hazelnut Milk

In its basic form, hazelnut milk is made from a mixture of hazelnuts and water. Still, manufacturers often add extra ingredients such as gums, oils and salt to produce a desirable taste and texture.

All hazelnut milk is naturally gluten-, lactose-, and soy-free.  It is low in calories, containing no cholesterol or saturated fat.

It is a good source of vitamins B1, B2 and B6 which are all essential in blood formation and mental health.  Hazelnuts are also an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamin E which promotes healthy hair and skin, as well as boosting the health of the heart muscles.  Hazelnuts helps in preventing anaemia, cancer and heart-disease.

Rich in folic acid, which is important for growing babies and adults, this helps produce red blood cells and transport oxygen around the body.  Hazelnuts also a good source of proteins.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) contains 70 calories, 4 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 7.5 grams of carbohydrates.

It is rich in plant-based omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which has been proven to help keep cholesterol and blood pressure down.  Hazelnut milk is very versatile and can be used just as dairy milk in cooking or consumed plain or with cereal or a hot beverage.  It doesn’t taste anything like dairy milk, offering a nutty flavour that is stronger than almond milk


Oat Milk

In its basic form, oat milk is made from a mixture of oats and water. Still, manufacturers often add extra ingredients such as gums, oils and salt to produce a desirable taste and texture.

Oat milk is naturally sweet and mild in flavour. It may be used in similarly to cow’s milk and tastes great with cereal or in smoothies.  Typically, one cup (240 ml) contains 140–170 calories, 4.5–5 grams of fat, 2.5–5 grams of protein and 19–29 grams of carbohydrates.

Oat milk contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, up to double the number of carbohydrates and about 50% of protein and fat.  However, oat milk is high in total fibre and beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre that forms a thick gel as it passes through the digestive system.  However, beta-glucan gel binds to cholesterol, reducing its absorption in the body. This helps lower cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, the type associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.  There have been some studies demonstrating this. Other studies have shown that beta-glucan may help increase sataity and lower blood sugar levels after a meal.

Oat milk is also inexpensive and relatively easy to make at home.

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. This is the same species used to make the drug cannabis, also known as marijuana.  However, hemp seeds contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects.

Hemp milk has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and a thin, watery texture. It works best as a substitute for lighter milks such as skim milk.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) of unsweetened hemp milk contains 60–80 calories, 4.5–8 grams of fat, 2–3 grams of protein and 0–1 gram of carbohydrates.

Hemp milk contains a similar amount of fat to cow’s milk, but around half the calories and protein. It also contains significantly fewer carbohydrates, therefore it is a good option for vegans and vegetarians, since one glass provides 2–3 grams of high quality, complete protein, with all the essential amino acids.

In addition, hemp milk is a source of two essential fatty acids: the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, which are not produced by the body, so you must obtain them from foods.

Lastly, unsweetened hemp milk is very low in carbohydrates, making it a great option for those who want to reduce their carb intake. If this is a priority for you, avoid sweetened varieties because they can contain up to 20 grams of carbs per cup (240 ml).

Rice Milk

Rice milk is made from milled white or brown rice and water. As with other non-dairy types of milk, it often contains thickeners to improve texture and taste.

Rice milk is the least allergenic of the non-dairy milks. This makes it a safe option for those with allergies or intolerances to dairy, gluten, soy or nuts.

Rice milk is mild in taste and naturally sweet in flavour. It has a slightly watery consistency and is great to drink on its own as well as in smoothies, desserts or with oatmeal.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) of rice milk contains 130–140 calories, 2–3 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 27–38 grams of carbohydrates.

Rice milk contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, but almost double the carbohydrates. It also contains considerably less protein and fat.

Of all the non-dairy milk alternatives on this list, rice milk contains the most carbohydrates — around three times as many as the others types.

In addition, rice milk has a high glycaemic index (GI) of 79–92, which means it is absorbed quickly in the gut and rapidly raises blood sugar levels. Therefore, it may not be the best option for people with diabetes.

Due to its low protein content, rice milk might not be the best option for people with higher protein demands, such as growing children, athletes and the elderly.

Rice milk has also been shown to contain high levels of inorganic arsenic, a toxin found naturally in the environment.  Long-term exposure to high levels of this toxin has been associated with an increased risk of various health problems, including certain cancers and cardiovascular disease.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that people consume rice as part of a balanced diet that includes a variety of grains. Solely relying on rice and rice products is not advised, especially for infants, toddlers and pregnant women.

For most people, drinking rice milk should not be a cause for concern. But, if rice makes up a significant part of your diet, then it could be beneficial to balance your diet by eating a variety of grains, including other non-dairy milks.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is made from a mixture of cashew nuts or cashew butter and water.

It is rich and creamy and has a sweet and subtle nutty flavour. It’s great for thickening smoothies, as a creamer in coffee and as a substitute for cow’s milk in desserts.

As with most nut-based milks, the nut pulp is strained from the milk. This means the fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals from the whole cashew are gone.

Typically, 0ne cup (240 ml) of unsweetened cashew milk contains just 25–50 calories, 2–4 grams of fat, 0–1 gram of protein and 1–2 grams of carbohydrates.

Cashew milk contains less than one third of the calories of cow’s milk, half the fat and significantly less protein and carbohydrates.  Because of its low protein content, cashew milk may not be the best option for people with increased protein requirements (It could be worth switching to a higher-protein milk such as soy or oat if you have increased protein needs, or if you struggle to meet your daily protein requirements).

However, with only 25–50 calories per cup (240 ml), unsweetened cashew milk is a great, low-calorie option for those looking to reduce their total daily calorie intake.

The low carbohydrate and sugar content also makes it a suitable option for people who need to monitor their carb intakes, such as people with diabetes.

Cashew milk is also one of the easiest milks to make at home.

Macadamia Milk

Macadamia milk is made mostly of water and about 3% macadamia nuts. It’s fairly new to the market, and most brands are made in Australia using Australian macadamias.

It has a richer, smoother and creamier flavour than most non-dairy milks, and tastes great on its own or in coffee and smoothies.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) contains 50–55 calories, 4.5–5 grams of fat, 1–5 grams of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrates.

Macadamia milk contains one third the calories and about half the fat of cow’s milk. It is also relatively lower in protein and carbohydrates.

It is very low in calories, with only 50–55 calories per cup (240 ml), which makes it a great option for those trying to reduce their overall calorie intake.

The low carbohydrate content also makes it a suitable option for people with diabetes or those looking to reduce their carb intake.

In addition, macadamia milk is a great source of healthy monounsaturated fats, with 3.8 grams per cup (240 ml).  Increasing the intake of monounsaturated fats may help reduce blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially if it replaces some saturated fat or carbohydrates in the diet.

Quinoa Milk

Quinoa milk is made from water and quinoa, an edible seed that is commonly prepared and consumed as a grain.

The whole quinoa grain is very nutritious, gluten-free and rich in high-quality protein.  While quinoa has become a very popular “superfood” over recent years, quinoa milk is fairly new to the market, which makes it slightly more expensive compared to other non-dairy milks and can be a little challenging to find in the shop.

Quinoa milk is slightly sweet and nutty and has a distinct quinoa flavour. It works best poured onto cereal and in porridge.

Typically, one cup (240 ml) contains 70 calories, 1 gram of fat, 2 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates.

Compared with cow’s milk, quinoa milk contains a similar number of carbohydrates, but fewer than half the calories. It also contains significantly less fat and protein.

It is made up of mostly water and contains 5–10% quinoa, which means that most of the protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals from quinoa are diluted.

It has a fairly well-balanced nutrition profile compared with other non-dairy milks. It is comparatively low in fat with moderate amounts of protein, calories and carbs.

Quinoa milk is a good plant-based source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans.


The Bottom Line

For many people, cow’s milk is a ‘must have’ and dietary staple.

Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons you may prefer to or be required to stop consuming cow’s milk, including allergies, ethical reasons and concerns over potential health risks.

Luckily, there are many great alternatives available, including those in this list.

When making your choice, make sure to stick with unsweetened varieties and avoid added sugars. Furthermore, confirm that your non-dairy milk choice is fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.

There is no one milk that’s ideal for everyone. The taste, nutrition and cost of these alternatives can vary considerably, so it might take a while to find the one that’s best for you.  Still confused?  Contact me

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