A Complete Guide to Milk Alternatives

May 09 at 12pm

By Vanessa Vanya, H.C.

It was the morning of my first slumber party in 1986. My parents passed around the variety of dry cereals for the groggy girls at the breakfast table along with the whole milk we had bought in honor of their presence. As I reached across the table and grabbed a jug, I realized all eyes were suddenly on me in wide terror as I filled my Kix-packed bowl with OJ. It was the first time I can remember feeling like an outsider as a non-milk consumer. 

Avoiding milk was not a health craze back then, though. I simply had a strong intolerance to lactose, as many people do. Today, just like gluten allergies, milk allergies are on the rise. A recent study by Harvard stated that humans have no biological need for milk and that it can actually weaken our bones. The study points to a sea of other sources for our calcium needs, such as leafy greens, whole grains, and vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is different. If you come from a long line of dairy farmers who have been tossing back the stuff for generations, by all means, carry on. If giraffe milk makes you feel like a superhero and you have a safe and humane way of obtaining it, have a second glass for me.

Arguments against milk are not only about its actual nutritional content and the negative effects on our systems, but also about its warped  processing, the conditions and health of the cows it comes from, the farm’s carbon footprint and impact on the environment, and the multitude of hidden ingredients and sugar added to it. For example, nonfat milk is usually whole milk cut with sugar and tap water; and milk in general can be a hormone and antibiotic cocktail due to the poor treatment of the cows at the farms.

Enter the alternative milk insanity! Cashew, almond, oat, hemp, rice, soy, coconut – the list seems to grow by the latte. Some people assume just because it’s not cow’s milk or because the label says “organic” or “natural” that it’s healthy. This couldn’t be less true. Unless you’re making your almond milk at home, chances are there are a slew of added ingredients: sugar, canola oil, and my least favorite, carrageenan. (More on that here.)

Because OJ doesn’t really cut it as a substitute for milk in my oatmeal, tea, and baking projects, I went on a thorough, dairy-free quest to test out the ever-expanding world of teat-free milks.

Nut (almond, cashew)

I’ve made almond and cashew milk at home with a cheesecloth, and although it makes me feel precious, if I’m short on time or cheesecloth, store bought is usually just fine.

Nutritional benefits: Magnesium, antioxidants, potassium, zinc, copper, iron, and high in vitamin E, which aids in preventing cancer and aging.
Downsides: Obviously not safe for those with nut allergies, and oftentimes contains added sugar and carrageenan.
Drinking: Tastes nutty, shockingly! Thinner than coconut and hemp milk but heartier than rice milk.
Baking/cooking: Not great for cooking but perfectly fine for baked goods.

Hemp

Nutritional benefits: Omega-3 fatty acids; high in protein and low in sugar.
Downsides: Often has thickeners and can be on the pricey side.
Drinking: It’s delicious, super creamy, and very slightly sweet.
Baking/cooking: Yes, great for both.
Necklaces: I certainly thought so in 1996.

Soy

Nutritional benefits: High in protein and fiber, reduces cholesterol, and supports cardiovascular health and promotes hormone balance in women.
Downsides: Many people have soy allergies; GMO soy crops are on the rise; can be high in sugar; various conflicting results in cancer studies.
Drinking: Has a strong savory flavor when unsweetened.
Baking/cooking: Not great!

Oat

Nutritional benefits: High in protein, calcium, vitamin D, and riboflavin; low in fat and is considered a tonic for the nervous system.
Downsides: Tends to be higher in sugar and carbohydrates; not a good alternative if you have a gluten intolerance.
Drinking: It’s creamy and naturally pretty sweet, so if that’s your thing, it’s the perfect addition to beverages without having to add sweeteners.
Baking/cooking: Not great for either in my experience.

Rice

Nutritional benefits: High in niacin and vitamin B6, it has the least amount of fat in nondairy beverages; has more manganese and selenium than the others; great for cardiovascular health and the immune system.
Downsides: Super starchy, high in sugar and carbohydrates: diabetes patients beware.
Always go organic, conventional rice milk usually contains a ton of pesticides and added chemicals.
Drinking: I think it tastes like really cold water but my husband loves it. Very cereal approved! Coffee, not so much.
Baking/cooking: Tends to be too thin in consistency for either.

Coconut

Nutritional benefits: Low in carbohydrates, cholesterol, and sodium; high in B12 and the good fats.
Downsides: Not good for people with nut allergies or those who don’t like the slightest taste of coconut.
Drinking: Super creamy and slightly naturally sweet.
Baking/cooking: Excellent for both, granted you like coconut. Perfect for soups, smoothies, baked goods, and tiki drinks.

“No foods are forbidden except when your body tells them so.” - Lima Ohsawa.

Don’t go throwing out that raw cow’s milk you paid a bajillion dollars for at Rainbow just yet – find what works for you. Is your boyfriend going to grow boobs from having soy milk once a week? No. Are you going to develop multiple sclerosis from adding cow’s milk to your granola every so often? Really doubt it. Keep in mind that what we do occasionally is not what harms us, it’s what we do the majority of the time.

There are always going to be a multitude of arguments and conflicting theories for and against most issues pertaining to health and food these days. Make smart and informed decisions by educating yourself on ingredients. Pay attention to your body’s reactions and you’ll be just fine. I’m just thankful to live in a world where I never have to mix citrus juice and cereal again.

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