So you've made the decision to go dairy free for health, diet, and/or allergy reasons. Maybe you're trying to avoid lactose. Maybe you just don't like the way the dairy industry tends to treat cows. But here's the rub: You love milk! So what are you going to do? Fear not, it's easy to avoid lactose and still get your fill of milk-like liquids. Soy, rice, coconut, almond, and even hemp "milks" have all found their way into the diets, hearts, and grocers' shelves of health-conscious people everywhere. Some, like coconut and rice milk, have been around for hundreds of years as dietary staples in many cultures around the world.
We're going to take a look at the five most widely available—and very diverse—milk substitutes, but before we start, let's quickly look at what you're leaving behind when you give up dairy. A 1-cup serving of regular skim milk has 90 calories, 125 milligrams of sodium, 8 grams of protein, 30 percent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA)* of calcium, 25 percent of your RDA of vitamin D, phosphorus, and riboflavin, and 16 percent of your RDA for vitamin B12. That same cup of skim milk also contains 12 grams of carbohydrates, 11 of which are sugar.
Now let's compare the rest. Keep in mind that these are all vegetarian/vegan-friendly, gluten-free alternatives.
- Soy Milk. Soy milk is probably the best-known milk alternative in the Western world. It's easy to find it in a variety of flavors and options at just about any market. So how does soy milk stack up nutritionally compared to skim milk? A typical 1-cup serving has about 100 calories—slightly more than skim milk—with 7 grams of protein, 29 milligrams of sodium, 25 percent of your RDA of thiamin, 9 percent of your RDA of riboflavin, 8 percent of your RDA of iron, 15 percent of your RDA of copper, 20 percent of your RDA of manganese, and just about 35 percent of your RDA of calcium.
Despite soy milk's popularity, there is some controversy surrounding it. The trend toward foods that are or contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is currently a cause for great concern, and more than 90 percent of all soybeans sold in the U.S. are GMOs, making it pretty difficult to find truly natural, organic soybeans or soybean milk products.
Also, unfermented soy products like soy milk naturally contain what are known as phytoestrogens—chemicals that when introduced to the human body tend to act like estrogen. There are many studies on this subject, but unfortunately most of them tend to contradict each other: Do phytoestrogens cause or prevent cancer? Are there negative side effects to ingesting too much of the stuff if you're male? Should infants be given soy products at all? The best way to deal with the soy debate and its consequences, aside from doing a bunch of research yourself, is simply to remember the age-old adage, "All things in moderation." If you aren't going to be consuming gallons of soy milk per day, you should be just fine.
Bottom Line: You might want to explore other choices before settling for this somewhat controversial and overprocessed milk alternative.
- Rice milk. If you've ever had the popular Mexican drink horchata, you've had rice milk. The popular commercial brands are enriched with calcium and other nutrients found in dairy milk, but they also (like commercial soy milk) have a variety of additives, sweeteners, and flavorings, many of which can't be considered either organic or natural.
So how does rice milk add up nutritionally? A 1-cup serving has approximately 80 to 90 calories, but they come mostly from sugar, which you probably already get plenty of, and which you're probably trying to avoid if you're trying to consume a healthy diet. If you're a rice milk or horchata fan, great—you can mix it with all kinds of things to make it a fun, refreshing treat. But realistically speaking, rice milk doesn't have much else going for it.
Bottom Line: Although it's relatively popular, I wouldn't settle on rice milk as a truly complete and healthy alternative to regular milk, unless I was mixing it with Shakeology®. Store-bought brands will be more nutritious, but will contain a lot of sugar.
- Coconut milk. Thai food, anyone? How about a piña colada? If you're a fan of either, chances are, you've had plenty of coconut milk in your lifetime. Now, don't mistake coconut milk for the watery liquid found in the center of the coconut, which is known as coconut water (the stuff you hear sloshing around inside when you shake one). Rather, we're talking about the rich, creamy stuff that's extracted from the white coconut flesh nutmeat itself. Want to do it yourself at home? You're looking at some pretty intensive labor.
Until recently, a cup of coconut milk contained at least 500 calories, most of which was saturated fat, but now low-calorie coconut milk has begun finding its way onto grocers' shelves. A typical 1-cup serving has about 150 calories, most of which is still saturated fat. It has 3 grams of protein, 45 milligrams of sodium, 50 percent of the RDA of vitamin B12, 30 percent of the RDA of vitamin D, and 10 percent of the RDA of calcium and magnesium. If you're a vegan looking to get more vitamin D in your diet, this stuff might help, but keep in mind that you won't be getting any protein from it and you'll be getting a lot of fat.
Bottom Line: Regular coconut milk has traditionally been intended to be used in small amounts, mainly for cooking, not as a milk substitute for drinking a glass at a time. Although it's delicious and has lots of healthful benefits, it's way too rich to have as a drink by itself. And while light coconut milks may not pack the same caloric punch, they're still essentially just fat.
- Almond milk. This is one I can live with. Nutritionally, a 1-cup serving will have anywhere from 50 to 80 calories, depending on how much water has been added. Although it has minimal protein, it does have 25 percent of the RDA of vitamin D, 50 percent of the RDA of vitamin E, and 150 milligrams of potassium, along with some manganese, selenium, and many other trace elements.
There are a wide variety of fortified store-bought brands that all taste pretty darn good—sweetened, unflavored, or otherwise. Along with the more mainstream commercial brands, it's also easy to find almond milk products that are raw and organic.
Bottom Line: Almond milk is a personal favorite and quite versatile too, although keep in mind it's still low in protein. On a side note, it's fun to make from scratch. A 1-pound bag of raw almonds can get a little pricey at around $12.00, but the investment is worth it. Make your own—it's delicious!
- Hemp milk. Places like Trader Joe's® or Whole Foods Market® are your best bet for hemp milk. There are a couple of different brands, again, all fortified and sweetened to taste more like regular milk. And no, it doesn't get you high. Interestingly though, the U.S. is pretty much the only country in the world that doesn't allow hempseed cultivation, even though there's no drug content in it. All hempseed in the U.S. is from Canada; it's guaranteed to be organic and pesticide-free.
Hemp milk could be a real find. Hempseeds are pretty much considered a superfood, meaning that even in very small amounts, like an ounce or two, they pack a wallop nutritionally. A 1-cup serving of hemp milk has approximately 110 calories and has 24 percent of the RDA of iron, 72 percent of the RDA of magnesium and phosphorus, 35 percent of the RDA of zinc, plus 11 grams of omega-6 fatty acids, 4.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, and 16 grams of protein. Wow.
Bottom Line: A milk alternative that's naturally packed with nutrients. Definitely worth checking out.
If or when you decide to go with one or more of these alternatives to milk, also know that you can use them in most recipes just like regular milk. There are literally hundreds of recipes available free online, and dozens of well-informed cookbooks on the market. So experiment a little, and find out which milk substitute works best for you.