Dairy Milk Alternatives

Looking for a non-dairy substitute for cow’s milk?  Well, you are in luck.  They are everywhere!  You might actually find yourself feeling overwhelmed in the grocery store dairy aisle for an overabundance of choices. There they are…a plethora of non-dairy milks just waiting to be discovered.  The challenge is, then, not in finding a non-dairy milk, but in finding the one that is right for you.

There are many things to consider here; most importantly, your health issues and dietary needs.  Each non-dairy option has its particular nutritional strengths and weaknesses.  Here is the lowdown on four of the most popular choices in non-dairy milks:  soy, almond, rice, and coconut.

Soy milk boasts the highest amount of protein of all the non-dairy milks (in the neighborhood of 6-7 grams per cup).  It is high in cancer-fighting isoflavones (phytoestrogens) and low in saturated fat.  One thing to watch for with soy milk is high sugar content, especially in the flavored versions. Soy is also a fairly common allergen. There is abundant controversy regarding soy.  Studies have shown that increased soy consumption can lead to such diseases as breast cancer and thyroid disorder.  These studies, however, are inconclusive.   As with anything, the less processed the better.  If you choose soy milk, be sure to look for certified GMO-free versions, as most soy is genetically modified to withstand exposure to pesticides and herbicides.

Next on the list is almond milk.  Almond milk is low in sugar and calories and is a good source of unsaturated fat.  It is high in magnesium, potassium, manganese and selenium.  Selenium can prevent chromosomal breakage (a cause of birth defects and miscarriages), improve formation of sperm, and bolster the immune system.  Almond milk also contains vitamin E, an important antioxidant which protects cell membranes.  Unless fortified, however, almond milk is low in calcium and vitamin D.

Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic and least fattening of all the non-dairy milks.  It contains vitamins B3 and B6, magnesium, iron and copper (iron and copper increase red-blood cell production).  It is, however, highest in sugar with 3-4 times the amount in cow’s milk or soy milk (1 cup contains 33 grams of carbohydrates).  Also naturally low in protein and calcium, a fortified brand would be recommended.

Coconut milk is the milk preferred by the crowd following a low-carb regimen.  Soy-free, gluten-free and cholesterol-free it is often referred to as a ‘vegan drink’.  It is high in iron, trace minerals, and B vitamins and is also a good source of electrolytes (although it ranks second to coconut water which can be used to prevent dehydration but is NOT a milk substitute).  Coconut milk is high in lauric acid, a substance also found in breast milk, which touts anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.  Of all the non-dairy milks, this is the one highest in saturated fat and should be consumed in moderation. On the bright side, the fat in coconut milk is considered a ‘good fat’, as it is easily metabolized.

Many of the non-dairy milks do contain added sugar, salt and flavoring ingredients.  If you want to find a milk comparable to cow’s milk, use a brand that contains 12 grams or less of sugar per serving and no more than 120 mg of salt per serving.

So, as you can see, each type of non-dairy milk has its pros and cons.  It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are choosing a milk substitute for children, be sure to take into consideration their special dietary needs and to include whatever you choose as a small part of a balanced diet that is rich and varied. One way to reap the most benefits for the whole family would be to incorporate a few different types of these non-dairy milks into your diet…i.e. soy milk for a high-protein complement to tea or coffee, almond milk for a low-calorie addition to cereal, and coconut milk for a low-carb decadent treat suited to drinking right out of the glass!