5 Alternatives to Dairy Milk and Their Health Benefits Compared

Free milk in glass bottles with shiny silver tops, served warm in summer and frozen in winter, is a vivid childhood memory for many of us growing up in the UK.

I couldn’t stand the taste of milk, so I had no problem when Education Minister Margaret Thatcher, also known as “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher,” did away with our mid-morning drink.

At that time, and until fairly recently, the term “milk” meant a dairy product that comes from cows.

But now, the market offers several plant-based alternatives, made from soy, rice, almonds, coconut, even hemp, driven largely by consumers’ hunger for low-calorie, low-sugar, lactose-free alternatives to add to their morning coffee.

Maybe I could have appreciated my free milk more if I’d had such choices.

Some 52 new milk-substitute products have been rolled out so far in 2014. Even though these alternatives control only eight percent of overall milk sales in the United States, they have represented the fastest-growing part of the dairy market for the past few years.

Sales of milk alternatives rose to nearly $2 billion in 2013, up 30 percent since 2011. In that same time period, the entire milk category grew by just 1.8 percent, to $24.5 billion. It’s predicted that non-dairy milk’s growth will continue to outpace dairy milk’s at least through 2018.

Plant-based alternatives can be a saving grace for anyone with food allergies or lactose intolerance, or those who follow vegan diets.

However, David Katz, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center warns: “Just because something is called milk does not mean it’s nutritious. The devil is in the detail.” Katz emphasizes that it’s important to be careful about sugars or salt additives, and to check labels to ensure nutrients like calcium and vitamins have also been added.

So how healthy are these alternatives?

Cows Milk

Conventional milk is an excellent source of protein, bone-strengthening calcium, as well as vitamins D and K. The National Institutes of Health recommend that people aged 19 to 50 digest 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, or drink around one to two glasses per day, but it’s still unclear exactly how much calcium we should be consuming. Experts advise that if you’re not drinking cow’s milk, you should be sure to find a good source of calcium elsewhere in your diet, including leafy green vegetables, tofu, baked beans or supplements that include vitamin D.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is produced by soaking dry soybeans and grinding them with water. It is a protein-rich alternative to cow’s milk, but lacks in calcium. However, if you’re going to buy soy, go for the unflavored, organic soy milk in order to preserve the protein it contains. This dairy alternative is richer in vitamin B than cow’s milk and has 10 percent of your recommended daily intake of folic acid, a B-complex vitamin. Warning: soy can cause bloating for non-dairy consumers with gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is processed, milled rice, blended with water until it transforms into a liquid. Carbohydrates become sugar during this process, giving it a natural sweetened taste. Watch out! Rice milk is very low in nutrient value unless vitamins and calcium are added; it also contains virtually no protein. While it is true that rice milk is great for lactose intolerance, it also has twice as many carbohydrates as cow’s milk, and so is not a healthful alternative.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is the liquid that comes from the grated meat of a brown coconut. The color and rich taste of the milk can be attributed to the high oil content. Coconut milk contains fiber and iron, but is higher in saturated fat and calories than cow’s milk. And it’s the saturated fat that should keep you from pouring coconut milk on everything. Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk is lactose free, so perfect for those with lactose intolerance.

Almond Milk

Almond milk has proven very popular over the past few years, and it has been touted as a healthier alternative to milk and soy milk. That’s because it contains fewer calories than soy, no saturated fat or cholesterol, about 25 percent of the daily recommendation for vitamin D, and almost 50 percent of that for vitamin E. The main drawback is that it has very little protein, so almond milk lovers need to supplement their diet with other sources of protein.

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is a vegan product made of a blend of hemp seeds and water. The mixture provides a creamy texture with a nutty taste. One benefit of hemp milk is that it is easy for the body to digest. In addition, this non-dairy alternative is rich in protein and contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamins A, E, B-12 and folic acid, and is packed with minerals. You just need to find another source of calcium.

There are, of course, other variables to consider in your choice of dairy milk and its alternatives; not everyone enjoys the flavor of hemp milk or almond milk.

Then there are price considerations, since all of these non-dairy alternatives are costlier than cow’s milk. Also, be sure to read labels closely and beware of milk substitutes that ride the health benefits of the plant they’re derived from, even if the milk isn’t as nutritious as the whole food. For instance, while an ounce of almonds has about 6 grams of protein, the actual milk product has only 1 gram per one-cup serving.

Good luck!

Photo Credit: iStock


Philippa P
Philippa P4 months ago

I use soy milk the most.

Jim Ven
Jim V12 months ago

thanks for the article.

Paul Channon
Paul Channonabout a year ago

A useful item, but omits to mention that those things 'lacking' in some of the alternatives can easily be gained form other foods in a plant-based diet. It critically fails to mention what we now know about the calcium in cow's milk - that not only do we barely absorb the calcium in calves' food, but it actually depletes the calcium already in our bones!! Unbelievable that such a myth persists. Never underestimate the power of advertising.

Karen C.
Karen Cabout a year ago

I love almond milk!

Gerald L.
Gerald Labout a year ago

Good comparison outlining pros and cons. Last week I was checking supplements added to these drinks. Some had Cyanocobalamin b12 a Cyanide based product that is not so yummy for improving cellular respiration.

It would be wise for those needing to source out a milk alternative to do some Media Shaming of the Processors cheaping out by not using methylcobalamin b12.

This also applies to those taking oral b12 supplements.

Carole R.
Carole Rabout a year ago

Very good information. Thanks.

Naomi Dreyer
Naomi Dreyerabout a year ago

Plant based milk. I have to see if it is available where I live. Good article.

Charmaine C.
Charmaine Cabout a year ago

I posted earlier but would like to ammend my post. We actually do not take calcium supplements (we used to in past years). I must have been asleep when I posted that. We get all the calcium we need through eating leafy greens, fruit and foods like Hemp milk (a leafy green) and tofu that are fortified.

Nicola F.
Nicola VeryBusy Fabout a year ago

Thanks for this.

Jaime Shackell
Jaime Shackellabout a year ago

She Says almond milk has little protein ,then later on she says it has more protein then one cup of milk!, not sure i'd trust this source!