Milk may do your body good, but dairy-free milk alternatives might be preferred.
“Anyone who finds they feel better without dairy products can enjoy and benefit from nut, seed, and grain-based milks,” says Christy Brissette, M.S., R.D., Toronto-based dietitian and president of 80 Twenty Nutrition.
Milk alternatives aren’t just for vegans — although the explosion of options beyond just almond and soy in recent years are an answered prayer for animal-free foodies.
Who else could consider ditching dairy? According to the panel statement from an National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference, the prevalence of lactose intolerance in the United States can’t be estimated based on available data because of inadequacies in the definition of lactose intolerance, and limitations from available studies. However, whether you’re lactose intolerant or not depends largely on your ethnicity: African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians, and Asian Americans are more likely to have trouble processing dairy. The condition is least common among Americans of European descent.
Even if you aren’t clinically lactose intolerant, though, these milk alternatives can help folks who are allergic or sensitive to milk proteins, she says. Learn more about whether you may be lactose intolerant or sensitive.
How Healthy Are Dairy-Free Milks?
Don’t fall into the trap of automatically equating “plant-based” and “vegan” with “healthy.”
“Whether a milk alternative is healthy really depends on the brand. The ingredients can fall across a wide range. They can be organic or genetically modified, natural or heavily processed,” Brissette explains.
Read the nutrition label. “The fewer ingredients in the list and the more you recognize and can pronounce, the better,” Brissette says. Skip the sugar by opting for the unsweetened version (not just “original”), and buy organic if you can — especially if you choose soy milk, she adds.
What else should make you put the box back on the shelf? “Many milk alternatives use carrageenan, a thickener made from seaweed. This can cause digestive discomfort in some people,” Brissette explains.
How to Choose a Dairy-Free Milk
Non-dairy milk alternatives (excluding soy milk) grew 20 percent globally in 2015 — the most of any dairy category, according to research group Euromonitor International. Here’s the nutritional breakdown of 11 of the most popular dairy-free milk alternatives (All data is based on one cup of unsweetened varieties when available):
30 calories, 2.5 g fat, 180 mg sodium, 2 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 1 g protein, 45% DV calcium (based on Almond Breeze)
80 calories, 4 g fat, 70 mg sodium, 3 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 7 g protein, 30% DV calcium (based on Silk)
Bonus: “Soy is the only plant-based milk with protein content similar to dairy milk,” Brissette points out, so use it in your post-workout smoothie. Read more about protein timing, particularly post-workout.
40 calories, 3 g fat, 120 mg sodium, 3 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 1 g protein, 30% DV calcium (based on Cashew Dream)
80 calories, 8 g fat, 125 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 2 g protein, 30% DV calcium (based on Living Harvest)
25 calories, 2.5 g fat, 80 g sodium, 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein, 30% DV calcium (based on Good Karma)
Bonus: “Hemp and flax milk are rich in omega-3s, so they get bonus points for extra health benefits,” Brisette adds. What kind of perks? The healthy fatty acids have been linked to numerous health benefits, including better brain health.
110 calories, 3.5 g fat, 120 g sodium, 19 g carbs, 2 g protein, 1 g fiber, 14 g sugar, 30% DV calcium (based on Pacific)
Note: It’s nearly impossible to find an unsweetened option, so if you love the taste of hazelnuts, consider making your own milk at home.
45 calories, 4g fat, 0 mg sodium, 2 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 0 g protein, 10% DV calcium (based on SO Delicious)
Bonus: “Coconut milk is high in fat so it’s a great alternative to cream in your coffee,” Brissette offers.
130 calories, 2.5 g fat, 115 mg sodium, 24 g carbs, 19 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 4 g protein, 35% DV calcium (based on Pacific)
Note: It’s nearly impossible to find an unsweetened option, so if you love the taste of oat milk, consider making your own at home (see recipe below).
70 calories, 1 g fat, 110 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 2 g protein, 30% DV calcium (based on Suzie’s)
120 calories, 2.5 g fat, 100 mg sodium, 23 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 1 g protein, 2% DV calcium (based on Rice Dreams)
Bonus: Rice milk is good for people with both dairy and nut allergies, but keep in mind it’s high in carbohydrates, so pair it with protein-rich foods to keep your blood sugar stable, Brisette advises.
30 calories, 2.5 g fat, 110 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 1 g protein, 30% DV calcium (based on Elmhurst Harvest)
How to Make Your Own Dairy-Free Milk
The best way to ensure you’re gulping a beneficial beverage is to forgo the box and make your own milk at home. “The best part of making things from scratch is you know what’s going into your food: whole ingredients that are high quality. You can avoid added sugars, cheap oils, and salt,” Brissette explains.
Note: Your homemade milk alternative won’t have the same amounts of calcium and vitamin D of fortified store-bought boxes. But that just means you’ll need to pay special attention to getting these nutrients from other foods — egg yolks or fatty fish like tuna and salmon — or supplements, Brissette adds.
Want to try it? Brissette’s recipe is so easy, even the most culinary-challenged can pull it off.
- Choose your base. If you’re opting for a nut or seed milk, soak one cup of the base overnight in cold, filtered water.
- Drain and rinse. All other bases can go straight into a blender or food processor raw.
- In a high-speed blender, add one cup of your base and four cups filtered water (the 1:4 ratio is scalable). Blend on high until smooth.
- Strain liquid over a pitcher or jar through a cheese cloth. What’s in the container is your homemade, dairy-free milk.
Bonus: Save the pulp in the cheese cloth, bake it at a low temperature until dry, and use it as flour, Brissette suggests.