The Top 5 Non-Dairy Alternatives to Milk

This piece was commissioned by a respected health and wellness magazine and published in February 2015.

For many of us, a glass of cow’s milk was a staple at every childhood meal as our parents continually reminded us milk would make our bones grow strong and long. These days, non-dairy milk alternatives are collectively gaining converts for a number of reasons, including intolerance to lactose, embracing a vegan lifestyle or simply wanting to cut down on dairy intake. No matter your reasoning, our list of five popular alternatives will help you learn more about the wide range of tastes, textures and nutritional profiles to fit your needs.

While you may be worried about missing out on the calcium found in cow’s milk, have no fears. A report by the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed dairy milk is not the only, or even best, source of calcium. Instead, eaters should focus on consuming lots of leafy greens such as collards and bok choy and plenty of beans and legumes to ensure they are getting the recommended daily intake. While non-dairy alternatives to milk are typically lower in calcium, many are fortified to include a higher percentage, along with a mix of supplemental vitamins. Here are five great options to consider:

1. Soy Milk

Outside of cow’s, soy milk provides the highest percentage of the daily recommended amount of calcium, about 25 percent per serving. The popular mainstream alternative also packs the same amount of protein as cow’s milk and is the most similar crossover to milk in terms of taste and texture. Though it comes in many different flavors these days, nutritionists agree natural is best: unflavored, organic soymilk ensures protein is retained and also eliminates Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) which have previously caused concerns over links between breast cancer in recent years. If you haven’t tried non-dairy alternatives previously, soy milk is a great first step into adjusting your palate to different flavors.

2. Almond Milk

Coming second for highest amount of calcium, one serving of almond milk provides 20 percent of the daily person’s average needs. Almond milk is made by grinding almonds with water and sometimes the addition of sweetener, depending on customer preference. Like cow’s milk, it has several vitamins and minerals to offer, along with a similar amount of fats. Almond milk is a popular choice in lots of recipes given the many varieties available in stores and its similar consistency to milk. It is used extensively in smoothies and can regularly be seen on recipes for baking. Be aware that it does have less protein than other varieties (1 gram per serving as compared to 7-8 in soy and cow’s milk). Also note: many varieties have lots of additives, so pick a brand that keeps the ingredient list short and natural.

3. Rice Milk

The third most popular choice for those avoiding dairy, rice milk is a widely chosen alternative because it is suitable for those with lactose, nut and/or soy allergies. Made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup and brown rice starch, it can also have sweeteners or flavoring agents added depending on use. While it can be made at home, most versions lining store shelves have been fortified with calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin D, giving them a more nutrient dense profile. Because this milk is made from a grain, it is significantly higher in carbohydrates, providing on average 33 grams per cup and only 1 gram of protein.

It’s a popular alternative in baking, but be sure to note that rice milk is naturally sweeter than other types given high starch content, so adjust any added sugar accordingly.

4. Coconut Milk

Long used in Asian and Indian cuisines, coconut milk has gained popularity in recent years through followers of the Paleo diet. Previously, this alternative had received a bad reputation for being high in fat; however, recent studies have proven the fats contained are mostly medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs) which, in addition to helping the body fight off disease and infections, are also less likely to be stored as fat. Coconut milk is still used in many ethnic cuisines and is a great addition to baking for its natural sweetness and higher fat content. Additionally, Starbucks has recently added coconut milk to its list of dairy alternatives.

5. Hemp Milk

Perhaps the least widely used on our list, hemp milk is made with hemp seeds, providing it with a high content of omega-3 fatty acids. Best utilized in cooking, hemp milk can be grainy on its own but is easily covered when used in baking or recipes traditionally calling for milk or cream. It’s also a great source of B Vitamins, Vitamin D, magnesium and calcium.

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