Cutting to the chase...
There are plenty of reasons to give up dairy but transitioning to non-dairy milk has its growing pains. Whole food plant-based beginners often worry non-dairy milk has too many ingredients, not enough calcium, and unfamiliar taste profiles. We’re here to bust some of these myths and demystify non-dairy milk, once and for all.
There are plenty of minimal ingredient options at the grocery store. And many varieties of non-dairy milk have as much if not more calcium than milk. Oh, and when it comes to taste, you’ve got tons of delicious options. For sipping, enjoy soy, almond, or flax milk. For a creamy coffee, ask your barista for oat, cashew, or soy milk. Pump up your protein with soy, cashew, or pea milk. Whip up your favorite vegan baked goods with coconut milk. And go allergen-friendly with hemp or rice milk.
Switching to non-dairy milk doesn’t have to be confusing (or unhealthy). It’s a delicious and nutritious alternative to dairy. Here’s the scoop...
Not all non-dairy milk is created equally
The dairy industry claims non-dairy milk is stuffed to the brim with fillers and suspect ingredients. And while yes, this is true for some plant-based milk on the market, there are plenty of healthy options! It’s all about reading the nutrition label.
- Minimal ingredients (that you can pronounce)
- Non-GMO ingredients
- Organic varieties
- No fillers
What about calcium?
Milk has a lot of calcium, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best source. Drinking milk may have no effect (or even a negative effect) on bone strength. Plus, milk’s not a health food: many commercial brands contain antibiotics and plenty of sugar. Not to mention milk is high in saturated fat, which increases our risk for heart disease, has lots of cholesterol, is a common allergy, and thanks to casein (the animal protein found in milk) milk drinkers may be more at risk for certain types of cancer than dairy abstainers.
Non-dairy milk brands are often enriched with more calcium than traditional dairy milk. And you can absolutely get all the calcium you need on a plant-based diet in general. Here are some of our favorite whole food plant-based sources of calcium.
Your Guide to Non-Dairy Milk
Between soy, oat, rice, almond, coconut, there’s no shortage of choice in the non-dairy milk world. But which one’s best? The answer depends on the intended use. Here’s the skinny on some of most common plant-based milk varieties and how to best enjoy them.
Thick, creamy, and packing 8 grams of protein per cup, soy milk is probably the most well-known and popular non-dairy milk alternative. It’s even touted by some as the healthiest non-dairy milk, thanks to its potentially cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Finally, it’s versatile as all get out and can be used in place of cow’s milk in most cases.
- Cow’s milk replacer in general
Another popular non-dairy choice thanks to versatility and flavor (creamy, slightly sweet, and mild). The main ingredient in almond milk is water so it’s a low-calorie option. It does only have one gram of protein per serving. But what it lacks in protein it makes up for in calcium (enriched) and vitamins E and D.
One of the creamiest vegan milk varieties, cashew milk is thick (like whole milk). And unlike some nut-based kinds of milk, cashew milk doesn’t have a nutty flavor. Store-bought versions are pricey but it’s super easy to make at home if you have a decent blender. Here’s a quick two ingredient cashew milk recipe.
- Coffee/lattes (more like creamer than milk)
- Making vegan ice cream
- Making nut cheese
Light and creamy, coconut milk is perfect for baking. It has a subtle coconut flavor. And while canned coconut milk is awesome for baking and cooking, non-canned varieties are best for sipping. Coconut milk is high in saturated fat so not the best choice for those with heart disease or low-fat diets.
(Canned) Best for:
- Baking (hello moist desserts!)
- Vegan ice cream
- Curry dishes
(Non-canned) Best for:
- Coffee (so long as you like coconut flavor!)
- Drinking (again, gotta like coconut!)
A great choice for families with allergies; rice milk isn’t just dairy free -- it’s free from gluten, soy, and nuts. With a sweet flavor (even unsweetened varieties) and a watery texture, rice milk is a great swap for skim milk fans.
- People with allergies!
The most hippie-sounding vegan milk, hemp milk is another allergy-friendly choice. Thanks to hemp seeds, it’s got quite the nutritional profile: fiber, calcium, protein, iron, and brain-boosting omega-3s. Heads up - it has an earthy and nutty flavor and can be an acquired taste for plant-based beginners.
- Savory recipes
Trending at your local coffee shop, oat milk has a toasted flavor and is perfect for hot beverages. It’s also got more fiber than many non-dairy milk options, with 2 grams per serving.
- Cozy beverages (vegan hot chocolate, chai, coffee, lattes)
High in fiber and omega-3s, flax milk looks and tastes a lot like cow’s milk so sip this straight if you like!
- Drinking straight!
- Most recipes that call for cow’s milk
Pea milk is gaining momentum thanks to its protein punch (8 grams per serving) and soy-free profile. Sweet tooth beware: it does have a beany flavor making it a better fit for savory recipes over sweet ones.
- Savory recipes
- Folks with soy allergies
Now you know!
Your transition to plant-based milk can be easy AND delicious. Just remember...
- To read nutrition labels (avoid too many ingredients, fillers, and sweeteners).
- You’ll get plenty of calcium without cow’s milk.
- Choosing the best non-dairy milk depends on how you plan to enjoy it (sip it, bake with it, cook with it) and what your nutritional requirements are (high protein, low fat, allergy-friendly).