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

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Ernest Roth
Ernest R.about a year ago

@Alexandra I. "Think of what a cow eats ... grass". That is what their organism is evolved to eat. But think again. Cattle are given grain or corn to eat. Grass fed cattle are a rarity, even in the summer. Thinking without correct information leads to lots of mistakes.

Niharika M.
Niharika M.about a year ago

I am anyways A vegan, and use almond and coconut milk most often.

Rehana VN
Rehana VNabout a year ago

Informative,thank you

Geoff P.
Geoff P.about a year ago


Gerald L.
Gerald L.about a year ago

If rice milk is made from polished rice, where the husk with all the B-vitamins are milled off, No wonder vitamins are added. When Japan was at war the polishing of rice was outlawed. The incidence of SIDS dropped. B1, thiamine operates our breathing function. Infantile apnea can be caused by nutritional deficiencies passed on from the mother. Eating white rice, white bread etc. where all the best nutrients are milled off to leave a white kernel high in carbs with all the valuable nutritious outside layer being pelletized and fed to farm animals.

Just wondering if this high carb load is responsible for Gestational diabetes, a condition that develops during pregnancy where the mother has an abnormally large amount of sugar in her blood.

Lonsdale, Derrick, M.D. Why I Quit Orthodox Medicine. - Soil ...
Derrick Lonsdale, M.D.. With a Foreword ... constitute violation of Dr. Lonsdale's copyrights. ...... that thiamin almost invariably cured the infant of his apnea and.

Dr. Lonsdale discovered the link of thiamine deficiency & infantile apnea. The AMA wanted to pull his medical license stating Vitamin therapy was medical malpractice.

Alcoholism also destroys thiamine, HFCS may also add to this problem as it metabolizes to Aldehyde the hang over component of drinking, ethanol. They are finding 6 month old babies with NAFLD (non alcoholic fatty liver disease). YouTube; Sugar the Bitter Truth Dr. Robert Lu

Mary Cromley
.about a year ago

I am vegetarian, but I still eat dairy products - milk, cheese, and yoghurt - to get the necessary nutrients. I don't think the alternatives to dairy are quite as beneficial.

Sue L.
Sue L.about a year ago

I enjoy almond milk as an alternative to dairy milk sometimes. I also prefer to buy dairy milk from a local dairy that doesn't mistreat their cows or feed them antibiotics. But that choice is definitely a lot more expensive!

Anne F.
Anne F.about a year ago

In my market, it's easy to find organic oat milk too. When I do want cow's milk, I look for a small farm source.

Diane L.
Diane L.about a year ago

Irina, yes almond milk is more expensive than the usual "house" dairy milk, but not by that much, and soy milk, while sometimes equal in cost, has many negatives involved, specifically taste (it tastes far less "wholesome" to many........ie., "flat"?) and contains estrogen like factors which are not a good thing.

I couldn't even drink a gallon of dairy milk in a week, maybe not in 2 weeks, so a 1/2 gallon of almond milk works for me. While it may be a bit more expensive, it doesn't turn sour so I don't end up pouring half of it down the sink, either. I've tried soy milks and once, a chocolate soy milk. I didn't notice it was "soy" until I started to drink it and wondered what was "wrong" with it because it tasted strange and "flat". I checked the carton to see the date (thinking maybe it wasn't fresh) and I had gotten a soy milk accidently.

Diane L.
Diane L.about a year ago

Susan, you can continue to disagree with me until the proverbial you-know-what freezes over, but I know differently. Yes, the CAFO's probably DO breed more of their herd every year, but the smaller dairies simply do not. I know this for fact and live near a dairy community, and have researched this. I stated an example of why it doesn't need to be done and you ignore that. No dairy farmer would impregnate his cows to increase their yield and then kill the calves born immediately, as it just doesn't make sense economically. Yes, of course if he kept the calves, it would cost him money, but feeding a pregnant cow that was also lactating is even more expensive if the calf she's carrying isn't going to either be kept as another milk producer or if male, sold for meat.