Have you noticed the crazy explosion of dairy-free nut milks in the market recently? There are aisles full of countless options for almond, coconut, hemp, cashew, oat, rice milks and others.
It is pretty obvious that there is a huge trend and people are choosing to avoid cow’s milk and instead are opting for nut milks whether for allergies or for other health reasons. So many of our favorite recipes need milk, and some foods just aren’t the same without it. Lucky for us, there are many dairy-free milk options on the market – much more than there were even a couple of years ago. We are so lucky to have brands and food companies who are quick to come up with products to make our busy lives a little bit easier 🙂
I do want you to keep in mind that not all nut milks are made the same, and some brands use harmful ingredients that are not in alignment with a healthy body. Below, we are going to take a look at what makes each nut milk type different and what you should look out for when shopping for one.
Why You Should Switch to Dairy-Free Milk?
We’ve all heard this saying: “Drink your milk; it will help you grow tall and strong.” We were taught to follow it as children and direct our children to do the same.
This conventional wisdom has been passed down through several generations, thanks to excellent advertising campaigns from the National Dairy Council. And as time has gone on, we have been given plenty of other reasons to drink milk, including reducing bone loss and helping us sleep. The problem is that these ideas have been proven false, with such respectable figures as Harvard pediatrician David Ludwig and Harvard physician and nutritionist Walter Willet (2) refuting these claims. In fact, plenty of research has found the exact opposite of these claims to be true, finding that drinking milk can cause bone loss (3) and can actually lead to the development of multiple disease in both children and adults (4). I’ve written a very thorough blog post about the dangers of drinking cow’s milk and also an instructional article on how to buy healthier dairy products.
But reading that sounds pretty abstract—and easy to ignore, so here’s a quick summary of why drinking milk is bad for your health, and the health of your children:
- It Isn’t Designed for Humans – Once you think about this one, it is obvious. What we call milk is the breast milk of various animals, meant to help nurture the young of their own species, often growing them very large in a very short amount of time; it isn’t formulated for us and our needs (2).
- Milk Can Have More Sugar Than Soda (2) – You wouldn’t put Sprite, Coke, or other soft drinks in your child’s sippy cup, and most adults consider it a great accomplishment to break the soda-drinking habit. So then why would we drink milk? Flavored milks easily have more sugar than sodas do, and even regular milks tend to have added sugars to make them more appetizing.
- There Are Healthier Sources of Calcium – If milk were an excellent source of calcium, countries that consume the most dairy would have the lowest rates of osteoporosis; instead, the opposite is true (2).
- Animal Antibiotics Cross Over – Breastfeeding mothers are mindful of the medicines they take because they can cross over into their breastmilk; animals are not immune to this. Unfortunately, most dairy cows are pumped with antibiotics to keep them healthy enough to produce milk in large quantities, and those antibiotics and other medicines do cross over into their milk, which we then consume (5). Cow’s are also given growth hormones to help them create more milk, and these hormones sips through their milk into the bodies of our children causing early puberty in girls, increased risk of breast and prostate cancers.
Knowing all of this, it would seem that dairy-free milks are the obvious way to go. However, there are many dairy-free milk options to choose from, and you should know that not all milks are made the same way!
Not All Dairy-Free Options Are Equal!
When it comes to the various dairy-free milk options on the market, there are many differences in terms of taste, consistency, added sugars, pasteurization, and when you can substitute them in a recipe (1). All of these factors can impact the suitability of an individual milk for your needs.
For example, a big concern raised with cow’s milk is that it is pasteurized, and pasteurization has been linked to numerous problems in humans, including constipation and weak teeth (6). However, many nut milks on the market—including almond and coconut milks—are also pasteurized (7).
Then there are the added ingredients, which can cause health issues. Carrageenan, a common thickening agent, is used in many dairy-free milks to help mimic the consistency of cow’s milk. It is indigestible, adds to nutritional value, and has been linked to intestinal issues (8). Many dairy-free milks artificially add vitamins and minerals to increase the nutritional value of their products, and both sugar and salt are used frequently to alter the flavor.
To make the best decision for yourself, read about some of the options below.
- Soaked and pressed almonds
- Cane sugar – regular sugar, usually will be listed high up in the ingredient list, indicating that there is a high amount of sugar in the milk. Always choose the unsweetened options, and sweeten the milk at home with raw honey or maple syrup at home if you must.
- Calcium carbonate – It is medicinally used as a calcium supplement or as an antacid, but excessive consumption can be hazardous.
- Locust bean gum – a thickening agent and a gelling agent used in food industry. Avoid it if you have gut issues, otherwise it is should not cause harm
- Almond milk is often sold without additional sweeteners.
- It is smooth in texture, making it more similar to milk.
- You can use it when baking, but primarily with sweet dishes.
- It is often pasteurized (meaning boiled at high temperatures and devoid of all beneficial enzymes and vitamins)
- It does not offer significant amounts of protein.
- Calcium and vitamins are not plentiful, and most brands add them synthetically as part of the production process.
- Ground, cooked soy beans
- Sea Salt
- Cane Sugar
- Vitamin A Palmitate
- Its protein and calcium content is similar to that of cow’s milk.
- It is low in calories and in sugar.
- Due to its high concentration of protein, it is excellent for baking.
- Soy is a major allergen and can be more problematic for some individuals than cow’s milk.
- The plant-based hormones in soy milk may interfere with our own, natural hormones.
- It has a bean-like aftertaste that can require some adjustment.
- Soaked and pressed rice
- Sugarcane syrup
- In terms of allergic reactions, rice milk is about as safe as you can get; children with cow’s milk protein allergies tolerate rice milk better than other dairy-free options.
- It is low in fat.
- It naturally offers numerous vitamins and other nutrients.
- It is naturally higher in sugar, carbohydrates, and calories than other dairy-free options are, and there are very few unsweetened options.
- It offers minimal protein.
- It is difficult to bake with, due to it being so thin, and you usually must utilize thickening agents to make it work.
- Coconut flakes
- Cane sugar
- Sea Salt
- Calcium carbonate
- Its creamy texture is similar to milk in a way that those missing dairy milk tend to find satisfying.
- It offers healthy fats to give you energy.
- The flavor is milk enough to use is most baked dishes without it altering the flavor.
- It is often pasteurized, which can be problematic.
- Sometimes starches are added to thicken the milk to make it more similar to cow’s milk.
- Those suffering from intestinal disorders, including IBS, can have their symptoms triggered by coconut milk.
- Soaked hemp seeds
- Tricalcium phosphate
- Gum Arabic
- It is very rich in vitamins and minerals.
- Plain hemp milk has no sugars or cholesterol.
- One cup has half the calcium an adult needs per day.
- It is not widely available; hemp milk has only hit the market in the last few years.
- It can be costly; this is particularly problematic in the United States due to hemp laws.
- Most commercial brands will use thickeners to give it the desired consistency.
- Cooked quinoa
- Calcium carbonate
- Gellan gum
- Vitamin D2
- It is rich in protein.
- It is naturally gluten-free, making it ideal for those with allergies and sensitivities.
- It is low in sugar.
- It is harder to find than other types of dairy-free milks.
Chocolate and Other Flavored Milk Options
The majority of dairy-free milk brands will offer flavored options, including chocolate and vanilla flavors. While these flavored milks can be a great way to get more reluctant individuals to try dairy-free options, they significantly impact the nutritional value of the milk, and not in a good way. Use flavored dairy-free milks as occasional treats, but do not rely on them on a daily basis.