Some people just don’t do milk.
There are many reasons why. Maybe you have a dairy intolerance. Maybe you don’t like the way cow’s milk tastes. Or maybe you think cow milk is unhealthy.
I won’t contest the reasons why. That’s another topic for another post, and I’ve already covered the most common anti-dairy arguments. If you want to read about my stance on the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of dairy, read what I’ve written about raw milk, cheese, yogurt, and dairy in general. If you want to learn how to identify dairy intolerance, read this.
But the fact is, lots of people either need or want a milk alternative. Water is great to drink, but it’s not the right smoothie substrate, and it can’t replace milk in recipes or coffee drinks. You need something vaguely white and thick enough to pass as milk.
Normally in a post like this, I’d cover all the different varieties and what sets each apart—their strengths and weaknesses, their nutrient profiles, their unhealthy ingredients. And I’ll certainly do that today, but first there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that there are plenty of good choices available. If you want something to drink, use in smoothies, or add to coffee, there are many different plant-based milk that avoid overly offensive ingredients.
The bad news is that most non-dairy milks are usually very low in nutrients. The parent food to these plant-based milks—the almonds, the cashews, the hemp seeds, and so on—are extremely nutrient-dense in and of themselves. Just check out my posts on nuts and seeds to get the nutritional lay of the land. But almond milk isn’t almonds, cashew milk isn’t cashews, and hemp seed milk isn’t hemp seeds.
This isn’t surprising when you think about how nut milks are made: by blending the nuts with a bunch of water and straining out the solids to try to extract some of the nut-ness. It’s pretty inefficient. If you could press an almond to wring out the almond milk, then you’d have something interesting. But that’s not how it works. Most non-dairy milks are superficial mirages of the real thing.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the most popular non-dairy milks and compare the nutrients in the parent nut/seed/plant to the nutrients in the nut/seed/plant-milk (when applicable).
This is the go-to option for most strict paleo eaters starting out. It sounds like a great idea. Almonds are a nutritious nut, high in magnesium, copper, vitamin E, and manganese. They have a decent amount of protein, some nice prebiotic fiber. In your head, almond milk is fantastic. Unfortunately—and this goes for most of the other nut milks out there—the average jug of store-bought almond milk contains no more than a handful of almonds.
In a cup of almond milk:
Not great carry over. No prebiotic almond fiber. Almost no protein, magnesium, manganese, or copper. The richest nutrients are all the ones they added after the fact.
Cashew milk is in the same boat: mostly water, not too much cashew.
In a cup of cashew milk:
Traditionally, you make coconut milk by pulverizing fresh coconut flesh, blending it with a little water, and passing it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer. This produces a very rich, very high-fat milk that runs about 550 calories per cup. This is the coconut milk used in cooking that comes in cans and cartons. A second pass with the coconut solids produces a thinner, less-rich coconut milk that runs about 150 calories per cup. This is often called “Lite Coconut Milk” and can be used to cook or to drink.
Besides the abundance of medium chain triglycerides and a lot of manganese, neither thick or thin coconut milk are nutrient-dense. A cup of rich, full-fat coconut milk gives decent amounts of magnesium, copper, zinc, selenium, and iron, but you have to realize that it takes 600 calories to get those nutrients. That’s not exactly nutrient-dense; the micronutrient-to-calorie ratio is skewed.
They do sell jugs of thin coconut milk as a milk replacement. Except for the fortifications they add (vitamin D, calcium, riboflavin, and the other usual suspects), these aren’t going to supply much in the way of nutrition.
The main standout is the omega-3 content. Flax milk has a little over a gram of alpha-linolenic acid (the plant form of omega-3) per cup.
I’m not talking about the oncoming wave of high-THC cannabis milks. This is hemp milk, produced by blending non-psychoactive hemp seeds with water and straining the solids out.
In a cup of hemp milk:
That’s not too bad, actually. It picks up some decent mineral levels, and hemp fat is one of the only fats to contain stearidonic acid, an intermediate omega-3 fat in the conversion pathway from ALA to EPA that increases the EPA content of red blood cells in humans (a very good thing).
There’s a product called Milkadamia. Great name, disappointing result.
In a cup of mac nut milk:
Despite having the best product name and the most potential for being a creamy milk substitute (has anyone tried adding mac nuts to a smoothie?—incredible!), the nutrient profile is low, and there’s not much going on.
I’ve written about oats before. They have some interesting properties, some beneficial fiber, and a decent mineral profile. Adding oat beta-glucan fibers to fiber-free instant oatmeal reduces the postprandial glucose response, so at least in the context of refined starch, oat fiber can be helpful.
The most popular and widely-available oat milk is called Oatly. The website explains the process: mill raw oats with water, add enzymes to extract the starch, separate the beta-glucan from the bran, discard the bran, pasteurize it, bottle it. This retains the beta-glucans (2 grams of fiber per cup) and starch (16 grams carbs per cup). The only micronutrients they advertise are the ones they add, including calcium, potassium, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin D, and vitamin B12; there’s no indication that the normal oat-bound minerals like magnesium, manganese, and zinc make it into Oatly in significant amounts. To top things off, they add canola oil for texture and mouthfeel.
Rice milk is made by blending water with cooked rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch.
Like the others, its only real micronutrients comes from the ones they add to it. It’s higher in carbohydrates than any of the other milks I found.
Believe it or not, of all the popular non-dairy milks out there, soy milk contains the most nutrients and is probably the closest to cow milk. It’s high in protein. It contains a nice balanced selection of minerals. A review comparing soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and rice milk to cow milk found that soy milk was the closest—mostly because it actually featured measurable nutrients.
In a cup of soy milk:
It’s not ideal though. People who regularly drink soy milk tend to end up with micronutrient deficiencies. Kids who drink cow milk are less likely to have atopic eczema, while soy milk drinkers have no such protection (and may even have increased risk). The protein in soy milk can help people build muscle, but milk proteins work better and also provide other benefits to the immune system.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use non-dairy milks. They are inoffensive and helpful for recipes. Just don’t expect any incredible health benefits from them.
But there are a few specific non-dairy milk products that deserve a closer look, especially if you’re going to go this route.
Instead of blending coconut meat with water and filtering out the solids, Vita Coco mixes coconut cream into coconut water to produce a milk-like product. I haven’t tasted it myself, but the nutrient profile is pretty compelling.
Some of the calcium, magnesium, and zinc is added, some is natural (coconut water can be a good source of all three). Still, it’s cool to see magnesium added because so many are deficient and supplementary magnesium is well-tolerated and effective.
Back when I was toying with the idea of getting a significant amount of my protein from plant sources for a quick experiment (long story short: I didn’t do it, I like animals too much, and I found myself relying too heavily on processed powders), I got a bottle of something called Ripple. Ripple is pea-based milk, fortified with extra pea protein, algae-based DHA, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. It has as much protein per serving as milk (8 grams), using a type of protein that can promote muscle gain, and it tastes quite good. It uses high-oleic sunflower oil for fat, which is low in polyunsaturated fat. If I truly couldn’t have dairy and desperately wanted something to drink or make smoothies with, I’d probably do Ripple.
I’ve never tried this brand, or hemp milk in general. But just like the generic hemp milk analyzed above, Tempt Hemp Milk has a far better nutrient profile than most of the other nut or other non-dairy milks I ran across. If it tastes anything like hemp seed, which has a nutty, subtle flavor, I can imagine hemp milk having a pleasant taste.
You’re all an enterprising bunch. Why not make your own non-dairy milk?
Nothing on the market or that you cook up in your kitchen is going to rival the nutrient density of cow’s milk. From the protein to the healthy dairy fats to the dozens of micronutrients we know about and the dozens we have yet to catalogue, actual milk packs a real wallop that your basic almond, cashew, pecan, or flax milk simply can’t defeat. So, you’ll have to shift your view of “milk” as a whole food. Don’t give your kid four glasses of hemp milk and think you’re replacing cow dairy. Don’t wean your infant off the breast and fill a bottle with hazelnut milk instead; it’s not the same. Don’t eat a dog bowl-sized serving of cereal with some rice milk. The only nutritious part of cereal is the milk, and non-dairy milks do not qualify. Don’t rely on non-dairy milks for your nutrient intakes. Those are shoes they’ll never fill.
Instead, use non-dairy milks to make nutrient-dense smoothies. Use them in your coffee. Make protein shakes with them. In short, use these non-dairy plant-based milks to make it easier to eat more nutrient-dense foods.
Before you run out to buy cashew milk or pea milk or something similar, I will say this: I’m a fan of dairy. It’s a nutrient-dense source of bioavailable protein, healthy fat, calcium, vitamin K2, and other important and helpful compounds. If you can eat it without tolerance issues, you probably should. And if you can’t, you may be able to tolerate other animal milks, like goat’s milk. Many people who can’t do cow dairy can handle goat. It’s worth a try.
What about you? What’s your favorite non-dairy milk? Do you have any plant-based milks that you swear by?
Onuegbu AJ, Olisekodiaka JM, Irogue SE, et al. Consumption of Soymilk Reduces Lipid Peroxidation But May Lower Micronutrient Status in Apparently Healthy Individuals. J Med Food. 2018;21(5):506-510.
Hon KL, Tsang YC, Poon TC, et al. Dairy and nondairy beverage consumption for childhood atopic eczema: what health advice to give?. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2016;41(2):129-37.
Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12(1):3.
Wolever TMS, Jenkins AL, Prudence K, et al. Effect of adding oat bran to instant oatmeal on glycaemic response in humans – a study to establish the minimum effective dose of oat ?-glucan. Food Funct. 2018;9(3):1692-1700.