Milk: Dairy-Free Alternatives

Healthy, Ingredient, Recipes
on September 7, 2011

Milk may be the perfect food.  It contains a unique blend of carbohydrates, protein, and fat to fuel the body, nourish bones and teeth, and maintain muscle mass.  Cow’s milk is chocked full of vitamins A & B, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and riboflavin.  But with many consumers unable or unwilling to consume milk from animal sources, milk alternatives are lining the shelves of the supermarket.  These include almond milk, rice milk, soy milk, hemp milk, grain milks, and more.  To make it more complicated, some protein supplements even contain the word milk, such as Muscle Milk and Monster Milk.  The large number of milk alternatives can make it difficult to choose a product based on looks alone.  Here is a basic breakdown of some of the more common milk alternatives you might see in your grocer’s milk case or beverage aisle. 

Almond Milk.  Almond milk has a mild flavor that many cooks appreciate in baked goods, coffee, or nutty cereals.  It is produced from ground almonds and contains no cholesterol or lactose.  It comes in a variety of flavors, is low in calories, fat, and protein, and is often enriched with vitamins and minerals.  It also contains 30% of the daily value for calcium in one 8 oz glass.

Rice Milk.  For people allergic to cow’s milk, soy, and nuts, rice milk may be a viable alternative.  Rice milk may be purchased sweetened or unsweetened.  It has a watery texture, and is not appropriate for baking.  Rice milk is very low in protein, high in carbohydrates, cholesterol and lactose free, and must be fortified to contain vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin B3.  Overall, rice milk is not as nutritionally sound as cow’s milk or other milk alternatives.  

Soy Milk.  Soy milk is one of the most widely distributed and recognizable milk alternatives on the market.  It is high in protein, cholesterol and lactose free, low in fat, and rich in omega-3 fatty acids which promote heart health.  Soy milk is not a good source of calcium unless fortified prior to sale.  It has a distinctive flavor, so home cooks should keep this in mind when cooking or baking with soy milk.   

Hemp Milk.  Produced from hemp seeds, hemp milk is a relatively new product that may not be readily available at some local grocery stores.  It comes a variety of flavors, contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and is low in sodium.  Hemp milk is fortified with vitamin D, vitamin A, calcium, and several B vitamins.  Its protein content is slightly greater than rice milk.  The texture is a little watery, and hemp milk may not be appropriate for many baking applications.  It also has a distinctive flavor.  

Grain Milks.  Grain milks are made from fermented grains such as oats, spelt, rye, wheat, or quinoa. It has a mild, nutty flavor that many people enjoy with hot breakfast cereals.  Low in protein but high in carbohydrates, grain milks are not considered a sound nutritional replacement for cow’s milk.  They are also not recommended for baking.  Individuals with celiac disease should avoid grain milks as they may contain wheat gluten or avenin protein found in oats.  

 Milk alternatives can be found all over the country.  They come in a variety of flavors, nutrient profiles, and recommended uses.  If you are interested in trying a milk alternative, experiment with a variety of products on the shelf until you find the flavor, consistency, and nutrient density that is right for you—here are three smoothies to experiment with.

—By Kate Sullivan