Once upon a time, you walked into your grocery store and found mostly cow’s milk in the dairy aisle. Certainly, you had choices including skim, two percent, and whole milk. You might have found a few soy milks and maybe an almond milk.
That’s changed. Even your small mom-and-pop grocery or major-chain supermarket these days carries a baffling array of choices. Cow’s milk now comes in varieties including organic, grass-fed, A2 beta-casein, and (if it’s legal in your state) raw milk.
Even more overwhelming are the many alternative-dairy choices – let’s call them non dairy milk – including almond milk and coconut milk.
“First there were powdered ‘creamers,’ with their troublesome corn syrup solids,” says Bonnie Wertheim in the New York Times. “Then came soy, which may come closest to the real thing in nutrients and consistency. Grocery stores now stock an army of nut milks — almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, you name it — which can be too grainy, too thin or frankly too flavorful. Pea milk? Sounds like a kindergarten taunt. Coconut and rice milk are basically water. Hemp milk? For the birds … and the hippies.” (1)
These non dairy alternatives are providing cow’s milk a real run for its money. Literally.
“Nearly 40 years ago, Steve Demos borrowed $500 to set up a vegetarian food company. He expanded into soya milk, which he called Silk, and helped create one of the world’s best-selling health brands,” write Lindsay Whipp and Scheherazade Daneshkhu in the Financial Times. “The popularity of Silk, which also sells coconut, cashew and almond milks, helped WhiteWave increase sales 19 percent over the past four years, making it the fastest-growing company in the US food and beverage industry.” (2)
According to Eurometer, while non dairy milk sales increased in other countries, they shot up a whopping nine-fold between 2009 to 2014 in North America.
“Concerns over saturated fat levels, lactose intolerance, hormone content, antibiotic use in dairy cows, as well as questions on animal treatment have all weighed on its demand,” they note. “Per capita consumption of milk has dropped 13 per cent in the US over the past five years, while in Europe it has fallen 4.1 per cent.” (2)
Riding that non dairy milk health glow, some of these manufacturers have crossed over into other non dairy milk alternatives including creamers, frozen desserts (their version of ice cream, and yogurt. Wertheim says according to Innova Market Insights, the plant-based beverage industry is a $9.8 billion market projected to grow to over $16 billion in 2018. (1)
Not surprisingly, dairy manufacturers aren’t entirely happy about this popularity.
“The micronutrient balance of dairy products cannot be matched by ersatz products, which are highly processed, and are hijacking the deserved good image of milk,” says Alexander Anton, secretary-general of the European Dairy Association, representing milk producers. (3)
But whether the dairy industry, the “Got Milk?” campaign, and other advocates like it or not, these non dairy milk alternatives – which appeal to vegans, Paleo, other health-minded consumers, and anyone else who wants to avoid cow’s milk – are here to stay.
Why Cow’s Milk Gets a Bad Rep
Why the sudden demand for these dairy alternatives? After all, if you’re vegan or have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, avoiding cow’s milk makes sense. But otherwise, why would someone choose non dairy milk? That becomes a loaded and very heated question.
David Ludwig, MD, PhD, argues that “humans have no nutritional requirement for milk, and it may be doing us more harm than good because of all the sugar even plain non-fat milk contains.” (4)
In his book Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?, Mark Hyman, MD, says even if you’re not lactose-intolerant, dairy shouldn’t be a big part of your diet.
“Milk from conventionally raised cows is full of hormones, chemicals, and inflammatory compounds,” he says. (Hyman wrote the forward to my book Align Your Health.)
Milk also contains the sugar lactose. About 75 percent of the world is lactose intolerant, meaning they lack sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase to break down that lactose. (5)
Even cow’s milk nutrient content isn’t so stellar. While milk becomes one way to get calcium and (fortified) vitamin D, like cheap calcium supplements, dairy often does creates more problems than benefits.
Likewise, milk’s health-glow reputation – for, say, strong bones – might be slightly exaggerated. Studies show countries that drink the most milk have the highest levels of osteoporosis. (6) And the Nurses’ Health Study, which tracked 77,761 nurses over 12 years, found the biggest milk drinkers had the biggest bone fracture risk. (7)
Cow’s milk is also a major food sensitivity or allergy.
“A dairy sensitivity results from an immune reaction to one of two main dairy proteins: casein or whey,” says Vincent Pedre, MD, in Happy Gut.
And researchers estimate between two and four percent of children have a milk allergy (more than even peanuts or tree nuts). (8)
Granted, some varieties of milk are healthier than others.
“Cow’s milk is a great food if you’re a baby cow, and even if you’re a human—provided it comes direct from grass-fed cows untreated with antibiotics, steroids, and hormones, and is raw, unpasteurized and unhomogenized—but even calves probably wouldn’t touch the stuff we get in supermarkets,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.
Non Dairy Milk Alternatives
These and other arguments against dairy have launched a growing array of non dairy products. Manufacturers see hefty profit offering a huge variety of almond milk and other alternatives while appealing to health-minded consumers.
“Plant-based or non-dairy milk alternative is the fast growing segment in newer food product development category of functional and specialty beverage across the globe,” researchers write in the Journal of Food Science and Technology. “Nowadays, cow milk allergy, lactose intolerance, calorie concern and prevalence of hypercholesterolemia, more preference to vegan diets has influenced consumers towards choosing cow milk alternatives.” (9)
You’ll find non dairy milk in cans, cartons, and plastic containers in the dairy aisle but also in non-refrigerated areas. Although their production methods differ, the procedure to convert nuts into nut milks is fairly simple.
“Nuts are first shelled, often lightly toasted, soaked in filtered water, ground into a paste, and then blended with water,” writes Sidney Fry, MS, RD. “The ‘milk’ is the liquid that is then strained from the nut solids, or pulp. Some manufacturers then add thickeners or gums, sugar, salt, and flavors. Most of the calories, fat, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals are left in the pulp.” (10)
Many non dairy milk options carry their own set of problems, and buying the right one can get tricky. Sure, they don’t present the allergenicity and other reactive potentials of cow’s milk, but many are heavily processed with additives you don’t want in beverages.
“Many milk alternatives are so bereft of nutrients that they have to be supplemented with added vitamins and minerals to appear even slightly beneficial,” says Hyman. “Only soy milk has a meaningful amount of protein,” he continues. “But soy milk comes with its own problems, like a hefty amount of phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body. Even worse, many varieties of soy milk are made with potent and hyperprocessed soy protein isolates instead of the whole beans.”
Many commercial nut milks also contain added sugar. The reality is, many non dairy milk options – especially soy milk – taste terrible plain, so manufacturers zing them up with flavorings (vanilla is popular) and sweeteners.
One vanilla-flavored almond milk boasts it only contains 80 calories, but read those labels: One serving contains 13 grams (nearly three teaspoons) of sugar. (11) The chocolate flavor contains 15 grams of sugar per serving, 14 of them added. (12)
Even if you know how to read labels and make the right choice, you might feel baffled with the number of non dairy milk choices today. While options including almond milk dominate the shelves, many health food stores today carry other dairy alternatives with different types of nuts including macadamia nut milk, cashew milk, and flaxseed milk.
Each has its pros and cons that are beyond this article’s scope. I’m not a fan of flaxseed, walnut, and chia seed milks because processing and potential higher heats could damage their fragile omega-3 fatty acids. Here, I will focus on three popular non dairy milk choices: Soy, coconut, and almond milk.
Technically, soy isn’t a nut; it’s a legume. But it’s also an extremely popular non dairy milk and worth mentioning among nut milks.
One thing’s for sure: Soy is a polarizing food. On the one hand, advocates portray soy as a miracle food or the perfect plant-based protein source (even though it is low in the amino acid methionine). (13) Others discuss ad infinitum soy’s many problems including disrupting thyroid function and messing with male hormones like testosterone. Research doesn’t help here, since many studies seem to contradict each other.
“The pro-soy PR effort has been so strong that most people simply accept that anything with soy in it is a health food,” says Bowden. “And in fact, the anti-soy contingent is sometimes so strident and angry (probably because it is frustrated with not being heard) that it sometimes tends to overstate some of the negatives (and the dangers) associated with soy, making that group easier to ignore.”
The soy debate is for another article. For here, let’s agree that fermented soy – foods like tempeh, miso, and natto – can be healthy, but the mass array of soy-based products that have flooded the market are decidedly not.
Among the latter is soy milk, the first plant-based milk long available to health-minded folks and those who have reactivity to cow’s milk. (14) But positioning soy milk as a health food has been a brilliant marketing strategy. I’ve talked about genetically modified (GMO) foods in another article, link and top among them is soy, one of the highest government subsidized GMO crops. (15)
“Soy milk has been a staple of East Asian cuisine for thousands of years,” says Hyman. “In its simplest form, it’s made by soaking soybeans overnight, then grinding them in water. The beverage was commercially introduced to the United States in the 1970s and quickly gained traction as an alternative for the millions of Americans who cannot tolerate dairy.”
Hyman says most commercial soy milks – and nut milks, for that matter – are bad news.
“In many cases the store-bought versions of these drinks are loaded with sugar and artificial flavoring,” he says. “Even the organic, unsweetened versions contain weird additives that are there to make nut and rice water look and taste like cows’ milk.”
One of them is the thickening agent carrageenan.
“Carrageenan, a red-seaweed derivative, is a common ingredient added to commercially produced almond and coconut milks (among other products) as a thickener to improve texture,” says Pedre in Happy Gut. “Research shows that it is not safe. In fact, it can lead to gut inflammation. It is best to avoid it when you can.” (For the record, carrageenan is in other milk alternatives, so read those labels.)
Almonds are a nut superstar: Rich in monounsaturated fat, fiber, alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), minerals like magnesium and copper, and phytonutrients. Researchers find this A-list nut can benefit various conditions, improving cardiovascular and diabetes risk factors including body weight, glucose homeostasis, inflammation, and oxidative stress. (16)
Unfortunately, most of those health benefits don’t always translate into almond milk. Some researchers argue compared with other plant-based milks, almond milk is naturally a good source of vitamins and prebiotics (the nutrients that feed your healthy gut flora). (14) Others note almond milk’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. (17)
When you convert almonds into almond milk, you lose fiber but also many nutrients. Whereas almonds are high in fat, many almond milks contain much less fat. Ditto protein: According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one cup of almond milk contains just one gram of protein whereas cow’s milk contains eight grams. (18)
Almond milk literally becomes a watered-down version of the real thing. Researchers estimate almonds constitute only about two percent of many commercial almond milks. Think about that: 98 percent of almond milk isn’t almonds! Instead, you’ll find water, added nutrients, and thickening agents among the ingredients in many commercial almond milks. (19)
“The fraction of almond milk that’s actually comprised of finely blended almonds varies between products and can be minimal,” Alexandra Kazaks, professor of nutrition at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, told the Los Angeles Times. “In many commercially available almond milks, almonds are the second or third ingredient, after water and sweeteners.” (20)
Almond milk nutrition is tricky territory. Many nutrients in almond milk are fortified, giving these commercial nut milks a healthier glow than they might deserve. Even the vitamin E researchers boast about in almond milks is added, not naturally occurring as with almonds. Is almond milk healthy? It can be, if you’re okay not getting many of the original nut’s nutrients or really much of the nut at all.
If you buy almond milk in containers, look for unsweetened almond milk, which will usually have 35 – 40 calories per serving. When in doubt, read the almond milk nutrition facts on the back. Buy organic almond milk if you can find it.
One way to bypass the problems with commercial almond milks is to make homemade almond milk. Fortunately, finding a great almond milk recipe is simple.
“You can make a great ‘milk’ out of almonds and water,” says Bowden, explaining how almond milk is made. “Throw a few tablespoons of organic almonds into a blender with a cup of bottled water, and you’re good to go. If you need it sweeter, use some raw unfiltered honey, or some powdered xylitol.”
Worth noting: While almond milk doesn’t contain many actually almonds, drinking it could still set off serious allergy attacks if you have tree nut allergies. (That goes for other nut milks too, including walnut milk and macadamia nut milk.) A severe allergic reaction could create anaphylaxis, and almond allergy symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, congestion, nausea, shortness of breath, and itching. (19)
Looking for recipes with almond milk as an ingredient? Check out the following on my site:
A newer player in the non dairy milk alternative field is cashew milk. According to Bowden, cashews are slightly lower in calories and higher in carbs than other nuts. They also come loaded with minerals, about five grams of protein per ounce, and about one gram of fiber per ounce. As anyone who dipped their hands in the cashew bowl can attest, they are also easy to overeat.
But what about cashew milk?
“There are ups and downs,” says Sidney Fry, MS, RN. “It’s a rough comparison when you look at whole cashews versus cashew milk, but here’s the rundown: On the upside, a cup of unsweetened cashew milk has just 25 calories (!!), 2g fat, and 0g sat fat. On the downside, when the pulp is strained from the milk, you lose almost all of the fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals from the whole nut. A cup of the milk contains 0g fiber and only <1g protein, and if you choose the original variety, you’ll also tack on 7g added sugar and 160mg added salt.”
Fry notes like almond milk, a cup of cashew milk contains 50 percent of your day’s vitamin E. (10) Many people love its unique flavor, so if that’s you, look for a cashew milk that’s very low in added sugar with as few ingredients as possible.
I talked about the hoopla surrounding coconut oil in a previous article. Coconut milk shares many of those same properties and controversies, including being high in saturated fat (primarily as lauric acid, the same fat in mother’s milk). (14)
“Creamed coconut and coconut milk are made in a way surprisingly akin to their dairy counterparts,” says Jo Lewin in BBC Good Food. “Coconut flesh (the white part) is grated and soaked in hot water. The coconut cream rises to the top and can be skimmed off. The remaining liquid is squeezed through a cheesecloth to extract a white liquid that is coconut milk. By repeating this process, the coconut milk becomes thinner. The thicker version is used for desserts and rich sauces. Thin coconut milk is used for cooking curries and soups.” (21)
Coconut milk contains impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals including calcium, magnesium, zinc, as well as vitamins C and E. Researchers note its anti-carcinogenic, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties, mostly thanks to the aforementioned lauric acid. (14)
According to Hyman, coconut milk is also “rich and creamy and full of medium-chain triglycerides, a special type of fat that’s unique to coconuts. MCTs are superfats that increase your metabolism and fat-burning mechanisms. Studies show that they help with weight loss because your body uses them more efficiently than it does other fats.”
You’ll typically find coconut milk in cans or cartons. Manufacturers make canned coconut milk from coconut and purified water. Sometimes you’ll find the dietary fiber guar gum in canned coconut milk as a thickener. For some people, guar can create gastric distress. If that’s you, look for a guar-free canned coconut milk.
Be aware full-fat canned coconut milk is incredibly calorie-dense (about 140 calories per 1/3 of a cup). You’ll want to dilute it with filtered water. Light (or “lite”) canned coconut milk usually comes diluted with more water. Economically, you’re better off buying the full-fat variety and diluting it yourself.
Coconut milk in cartons – sometimes called coconut beverages – oftentimes present the same problems as other milk alternatives: Fortified nutrients, additives, and sometimes added sugar. Here’s the ingredients in the healthiest option I found from one popular brand:
Organic coconut milk (water, organic coconut cream), calcium phosphate, magnesium phosphate, Kosher sea salt, carrageenan, guar gum, reb A (stevia extract), monk fruit vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D2, L-selenomethionine, (selenium), zinc oxide, folic acid, vitamin B12.
Worth noting here: Vitamin D here comes in the inferior ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), and nutrients like zinc and folic acid come in inferior forms. You’ve also got the problem with thickeners (carrageenan, guar gum).
These are the same problems Hyman noted with soy milks that often occur with many non dairy milk options. Do not be fooled by front-label health glow that proclaims the product is high in protein, only so many calories per serving, or whatever. Turn the container around and read the ingredients.
Fortunately, like the aforementioned almond milk recipe, making coconut milk is easy.
“All you need to do is puree some organic coconut chips in a blender with hot water, and then squeeze the mixture through a piece of cheesecloth to extract the milk,” says Hyman. “The resulting drink is thick, creamy, and delicious — and much more nutritious than any milk you can find at the store.”
Check out the following recipes on my site including coconut milk as an ingredient:
Other Milk Alternatives and Milk Alternative Blends
Today, seemingly anything can be made into a non dairy alternative: Legumes, nuts, fruit, and even oats. Manufacturers typically make oat milk from steel-cut oats or whole groats which they soak in water, blend, and strain with a cheesecloth or a nut milk bag. (22) Leading this non dairy milk option is a company called Oatly.
“To those participating in today’s restrictive food culture, Oatly’s lack of dairy, nuts, gluten, soy or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a plus,” says Wertheim in a New York Times article appropriately called “The Humble Ascent of Oat Milk.” “It’s rich in soluble fiber (recalling an oat-bran madness of 30 years ago) and is comparable to other milk alternatives in terms of sugar content, but relatively high in carbohydrates and calories, with about double those that a serving of almond milk contains.” (1)
So yes, seemingly anything can become a non dairy alternative these days: Visit pretty much any supermarket and you’ll find an ever-expanding array of non dairy milk alternative including blends such as almond and coconut milk. Theoretically, such blends combine the best qualities of both plants into one non dairy milk alternative while potentially minimizing any reactivity.
Taste also plays into account here: You might prefer the taste of, say, an almond-coconut milk better than an almond or coconut milk alone.
Regardless which you opt for, always flip that container around and check sugar (ideally, no more than a one to two grams of added sugar) and ingredients (fewer are always better).
5 Takeaways for Choosing Among Non Dairy Milk Options
When you have so many to choose from – macadamia nut milk, hemp nut milk, the list goes on and on – you might correctly ask yourself What’s next?
Here’s the thing: You certainly don’t need or want cow’s milk, and you really don’t need any of these non dairy milk options.
Remember earlier I said researchers estimate almond milk is less about almonds and way more water, and I’d argue most other non dairy milk options aren’t far behind. And that becomes a key point: Your body needs water. It does not need milk or non dairy milk options.
“Think about it: Your body is 83 percent water,” says Bowden. “You need water for every single metabolic process in the body.”
But you’re also human, and you have taste preferences beyond water, which can include non dairy milk options. The right nut milk or other non dairy milk option can make a good alternative to cow’s milk. The wrong one can be an overpriced mistake (at best) or an additive-laden health hazard.
Even with this information, selecting among these non dairy milk options can feel confusing when you’re trying to make the most health-conscious decision. These 5 strategies can help you.
1. Least-processed choices will always win.
“If you want the nutrition contained in almonds, soybeans, hazelnuts, hemp, or cashews, it’s better to just eat the whole food,” says Hyman.
When you do choose processed foods – yes, nut milks fall under that category – look for one with as few ingredients as possible. Canned coconut milk that simply contains organic coconut and purified water will always prove better than “coconut beverage” with added nutrients, thickeners, and sugar.
2. Homemade is always best.
You know exactly what goes into that nut milk, you’re not getting nasty preservatives and cheap synthetic vitamins, and you’ll save a few bucks in the bargain. Once you get the hang of it, making your own nut milks can be easy and even fun.
3. Coconut seems to be the real nutrient winner.
Immune-boosting lauric acid, fat-burning MCTs, and its overall nutrient profile make it better than almond milk – worth repeating: most almond milks are just two percent almonds – and definitely better than soy milk.
4. Opt for canned coconut milk if you can’t make your own.
Look for an organic whole-fat coconut milk without guar gum (it should just be coconut and purified water) in a BPA-free can. Store in an airtight container, refrigerate, and use within a few days. And remember to dilute it with water, since full-fat coconut milk is incredibly caloric-concentrated.
5. Don’t be deceived by labels.
Manufacturers have skillfully positioned nut milks as healthier alternatives to cow’s milk, and they certainly can be. But don’t be misled by the front of the container. Read the ingredients and nutrition label on the back. Choose a nut milk with no added sugar (ideally only one or two grams per serving) and no carrageenan or other controversial ingredients.
Are you a fan of non dairy milk? If so, do you prefer almond milk or another type of nut milk? And I’d love to know why you choose non dairy milk: Are you vegan, more health-conscious, or want to avoid cow’s milk for another reason? Share your comments below or on my Facebook page.