“Milk does a body good.” This familiar, decades-old mantra of the food industry might need to change with the times.
“Now more so than ever, people are conflicted on whether or not animal milk should be part of their diet,” says Dr. Jeremy Wolf, LuckyVitamin’s lead health advisor.
He recognizes cow’s milk as a good source of nutrients, such as vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D. “One cup of whole cow’s milk also contains about 8 grams of fat and protein,” he adds. But despite its recognized nutritional value, “new research shows that cow’s milk, once a staple of our diets, may have harmful effects on the body,” says Dr. Wolf.
Antibiotics and growth hormones found in cow’s milk may pose a threat to human health and have even been linked with an increased risk of cancer (1). Additionally, “while milk is touted for its ability to strengthen bones, drinking too much of it may actually increase your risk for fractures (2),” Dr. Wolf notes. Dairy products are also often linked to bloating and can be a contributing factor to IBS (3). Other health issues linked to dairy include skin conditions like acne (4), as well as allergies and intolerances (5).
As a result, more consumers are skipping past the dairy section for alternatives. I count myself among those eagerly reaching to try the newest non-dairy milk, experimenting with new flavors and plant-based recipes. But more choices often raise more questions: Which milk alternative is the best choice nutritionally? Is cutting out dairy really the right move for me?
5 Types of Plant-Based Milk Alternatives
Luckily, avoiding dairy doesn’t mean ditching milk altogether. If you’re quitting cow’s milk, here are a few alternatives to reach for instead.
Almonds are a great source of antioxidants, healthy fats, and vitamin E. At 30-40 calories per cup, almond milk is an ideal choice for those watching their intake (make sure to opt for unsweetened). Unlike other alternatives, almond milk is low in protein, which is something to be mindful of if subbing in for cow’s milk (6).
Personally, I love its neutral, slightly nutty flavor. It makes a great base in smoothies and is a nice addition to coffee and tea.
Compared to other plant milks, soy is a fairly close substitute to cow’s milk nutrient-wise. It’s a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, but lower in fat and carbohydrates (6).
Soy milk is one of the O.G. dairy alternatives, so it’s easily found in most grocery stores and coffee shops. I love this option for its creamy, balanced flavor that works wonderfully in savory dishes.
The newest alt-milk making a splash on the scene! Oat milk’s mild, creamy flavor makes it a great choice if you’re missing the taste and texture of cow’s milk. It’s high in fiber, budget-friendly and some studies suggest it can even help reduce stress (6).
Oat milk is my go-to for coffee. It froths like a dream and its natural sweetness lets me pass on sweetener. However, oat milk itself contains more naturally occurring sugar than other options (even unsweetened). I’d consider avoiding if sugar is something you’re trying to reduce.
Coconut milk is rich in vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. It’s higher in fat and calories than other options, and its natural sweetness is great for making your own dairy-free desserts (6).
There are two kinds of coconut milk you’ll find in grocery stores. One comes in a can and is incredibly dense—not so great for your cereal but a better choice for savory stews and curries. If you’re looking for a more drinkable option, look for diluted down coconut milk “beverages” near the dairy section.
You’ll chuckle saying this one out loud, but pea milk’s nutrient profile is certainly no joke! It’s high in protein at 8-10 grams per serving and is typically fortified with more calcium than milk. It’s vegan, nut-free, soy-free, and gluten-free, making it an excellent, allergy-friendly option.
I like working this one into my post-workout shakes when my body could use a protein boost. Enjoy it in smoothies, cereal, savory dishes—however you peas.
Non-Dairy Milk: What to Consider
It’s no surprise that the rise of plant-based alternatives has shaken up the dairy industry. The FDA recently opened up a public survey to determine if non-dairy alternatives using the label “milk” was misleading to consumers (7). While this survey found most shoppers understood plant “milk” was not actual milk, simply substituting a plant-based alternative for cow’s milk does raise some nutritional concerns (8).
“Many of the plant-based alternatives are fortified to contain some of the same ingredients that you would find in cow’s milk,” says Dr. Wolf. “Eating a di
et that consists of a variety of fruits and vegetables is a great way to make up the other missing nutrients.”
He recommends tofu, avocados, legumes, and nuts as great sources of protein. Try eggs, fish, and cod liver oil to get your dose of vitamin D. For calcium, choose green, leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, and amaranth.
As always, talk with your doctor before making changes to your diet. Keep in mind that dairy affects people in different ways. More conclusive research is still needed to determine exactly how cow’s milk affects our overall health. Experts also warn that plant-based milk does not substitute for breast milk or formula for infants (6).