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Understanding Milk Alternatives

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

Have you recently come to the conclusion that you are sensitive to dairy?

Well, you’re definitely not alone.

Lactose, a sugar found in dairy products, causes digestive issues in the small intestines when consumed in considerable amount for lactose sensitive individuals. Around 68% of world’s population is lactose sensitive. Often, lactose intolerance and lactose sensitivity, also known as lactose malabsorption, are more common in certain regions of the world, like Africa and Asia. Lactose absorption issues are not as common in the U.S. as other regions, but over a third of the U.S still experiences a lactose sensitivity. Those who are not affected by lactose have a gene that allows them to digest it. You may be thinking those are the lucky people, but don’t knock non-dairy products until you try them.

Fortunately, there a lot of dairy alternatives for people with a lactose sensitivity, and new milk variations are being invented all the time. Currently, the most common alternatives are soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, oat milk, cashew milk, and rice milk. These are, of course, different, nutritionally, than cow’s milk. Chaulpa-Krebzdak et al. (2018) found in a study, which compared whole cow’s milk to all the other alternative milks, that there is a difference between each batch of plant-based milks; they are slightly inconsistent in their nutrient profile. This study also found that plant-based milks had, on average, a little less than half the percent of protein that is in cow’s milk. Most of the milk alternatives are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and sometimes vitamin A and B12, making them just as vitamin sufficient as cow’s milk. Cow’s milk contains the greatest amount of protein when compared to the milk alternatives. It is also important to note that the amount of sugar, salt, and any other additive substances in each milk alternative varies by brand. Take note whether the milk is sweetened or unsweetened, or whether it is fortified, when making your milk choices. [1,3,4]

Soy milk, made from soybeans, was the very first milk alternative. Soy milk is the most comparable alternative to cow’s milk, in terms of protein and general nutritional value. Soy milk also contains amino acids, like cow’s milk, which none of the other milk alternatives contain. Soy is often viewed as a controversial substance because it leads to a spike in estrogen production, which is an ephemeron that has been linked to infertility, cancers, and an array of health concerns. However, it was recently discovered that minimally processed products with soy, like soy milk, tofu, edamame, may have trace amounts of estrogen-containing compounds which have been found to actually help prevent cancer, increase heart health, help relieve menopause symptoms, and potentially aid fertility when consumed in moderation. Conversely, highly processed soy-based foods, like soy protein powder and soy-based protein bars, have a higher concentration of estrogen compounds that can potentially disrupt the hormones in the body. If you have an underactive thyroid, you should avoid soy-based foods because soy has been found to disrupt the absorption of thyroid medication. [1,3,4,5,6]

Almond milk is popular amongst the non-dairy milk drinking population that is seeking to lose weight. Almond milk is filled with healthy fats and has very low calorie and sugar content. On the other hand, almond milk is very low in protein and thus is not a suitable alternative for populations seeking to gain weight. Environmentally conscientious people are also weary of drinking almond milk because of the amount of water that is required to grow almonds. However, drinking almond milk is arguably much more environmentally friendly than consuming cow’s milk. Do keep in mind that almond milk should not be consumed by people with tree nut allergies. [1,3,4]

Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds. Hemp milk, similar to almond milk, is low in calories and high in healthy fats. It has a higher amount of naturally occurring vitamins. Taking hemp oil, in fact, is starting to gain popularity for its extensive health properties. Hemp milk contains only a little bit more protein per serving than almond milk. [1,3,4]

Coconut milk contains just as much unhealthy, or saturated, fat as cow’s milk. Although it has naturally occurring high vitamin D and B-12 content, if you are looking to seek a healthier alternative to cow’s milk, you should probably avoid this one in order to cut out excess saturated fats in your diet. We’ll discuss why later. [1,3,4]

Oat milk is great for a lactose sensitive person or a person cultivating a non-dairy or vegan lifestyle, yet it is not a suitable alternative for people with celiac disease or people with a gluten sensitivity. Oats often do contain gluten, unless it is explicitly labeled gluten-free. Oat milk contains a lot of carbohydrates and is also high in B-12, high in calcium, and high in calories. Oat milk has a moderate amount of protein and sugar. [1,3,4]

Cashew milk is a newer milk alternative. It has very little protein, is usually fortified, and is low in calories. Its nutrient composition is similar to almond milk. Cashew milk may not be as easily accessible due to the established popularity of the aforementioned plant-based milks. Cashew milk should, also, not be consumed by people with tree nut allergies.

Lastly, rice milk is a naturally very sweet alternative. It contains the same out of calcium and vitamin D as cow’s milk but contains very little protein like hemp and almond milk. [1,3,4]

McCarthey et al. (2017) studied the perception of dairy milk versus non-diary milk to determine why there is a sudden increase in the preference for plant-based alternatives. They found that dairy milk drinkers were most drawn to milk because of the fat content and fat content percentage choices, as well as the size of the milk carton and the label of the milk. Dairy drinkers perceived cow’s milk as a natural part of a healthy diet. This perception of cow’s milk was probably curated due to cow’s milk being a staple in the household of these dairy consumers. Non-dairy milk drinkers were most drawn to the sugar content of the milk, the plant-based options, and the size of the carton. Almond milk was the most preferred milk alternative. Plant-based milk drinkers perceived non-dairy milk options as the environmentally conscious and animal friendly choice. [1,5,6]

Now that we’ve explored the different options of plant-based alternatives, it is important to note the benefits of milk alternatives, which might convince the dairy tolerant to give them a try. The age-old concept that “milk builds strong bones” was recently debunked. There are no casual relationships between dairy products and strong bones. In fact, there are some studies finding a loose association between high whole milk consumption and bone fractures. Strong bones are often a result of a regular weight bearing exercise regime and a diet filled with colorful vegetables. Whole dairy products contain a high fat and hormone content. There is an association between a high dairy diet and diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. [5,6,7,8]

Oddly, goat and sheep’s milk, versus cow’s milk, are typically easier for the body to digest, despite still containing lactose. However, people who are diary intolerant should still avoid these options, as well. Interestingly, dairy products in Europe are often easier to digest by dairy sensitive people than in the U.S.[5,6,7,8]

It is fascinating that milk choices are not just a health decision anymore, but also a social one. It is well established, culturally, that the dairy industry has a huge impact on carbon emissions, as well as America’s intolerable treatment of animals in the meat and dairy industry, and there are few regulations to negate this behavior. The shift toward plant-based milk options represents a cultural dedication to achieve a healthier, more sustainable future. Of course, drinking a glass of cow’s milk does not deem that the person doesn’t care about the environment or about the animals involved in the dairy industry. Consuming cow’s milk is culturally viewed as a necessity for a healthy lifestyle in certain regions of the U.S. more than others. If real change is to be made, it will ultimately require government regulations or the corporations within the dairy industry to want to make changes. It is not the one glass of cow’s milk a 4-year-old drinks that is destroying the environment; it’s the dairy industry’s and other industries’ and corporations’ unsustainable practices and motives. Our milk choices may say more about us than we know, but the most important aspect when choosing your milk preferences is listening to what your own body needs and providing your body the right nourishment.


1. Caporuscio, J. (2021). Almond, hemp, oat, soy, and cow’s milk: Which is best? Medical News Today. Retrieved from

2. Chalupa-Krebzdak, S. et al. (2022). Nutrient density and nutritional value of milk and plant-based milk alternative. Science Direct. 87, 84-92.

3. McCarthy, K. et al. (2017). Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: What are consumer perceptions of fluid milk? Elsevier. 100(8), 6125-6138

4. Ryan, T. (2020). Dairy alternative: 8 ways to ditch milk, yogurt, and cheese. Trifecta. Retrieved from

5. Simons, R. (2021). What is the best alternative to milk? Roswell park. Retrieved from

6. Taylor, M. (2021). Is soy good or bad for you? Here’s the science-backed answer. GH. Retrieved from

8. What you need to know when choosing milk and milk alternatives. (2021). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from



Author: Katrina Peavy

Editor: Lauryn Agron

Health scientist: Sarah Ellis

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