Cow's Milk - Why You Might Want a Substitute


Cow’s milk is considered a staple in many people’s diets, but there are several reasons you might want to look for an alternative. Fortunately many nondairy alternatives are available.

Cow’s milk is consumed as a beverage, poured on cereal and added to smoothies, tea or coffee. While it is a popular choice for many, some people can’t or choose not to drink milk due to personal preferences, dietary restrictions, allergies or intolerance. Evidence suggests that dairy consumption may lead to several health concerns.

Why You Might Want a Substitute

  • Milk allergy: 2–3% of kids under the age of three are allergic to cow’s milk. This can cause a range of symptoms, including rashes, vomiting, diarrhea and severe anaphylaxis. Around 80% of kids outgrow this allergy by age 16.

  • Lactose intolerance: About 75% of the world's population is intolerant to lactose, the sugar found in milk. In fact, this is the norm with a genetic mutation in the other 25% of us which provides for the enzyme to break down lactose.

  • Heart disease: Milk and other dairy products are the top sources of artery-clogging saturated fat in a standard American diet. Milk products also contain cholesterol. Diets high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease, which remains America’s top killer.

  • Cancer risks: Regular consumption of dairy products has been linked to prostate cancer. High intakes of dairy products increase the risk for prostate cancer, according to a 2015 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers analyzed data from 32 different studies and found dairy product intakes (milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and dietary calcium) were incrementally associated with an increased risk for prostate cancer. The Physicians Health Study, tracking 21,660 participants for 28 years, found an increased risk of prostate cancer for those who consumed ≥ 2.5 servings of whole milk per day, compared with those who consumed ≤ 0.5 servings a day. Dairy is also associated with increased risk of lung cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer.

  • Bone health: Despite the marketing hype from the dairy industry, current research actually shows that dairy products have little or no benefit for bone health. According to an analysis published in the British Medical Journal, most studies fail to show any link between dairy intake and bones fractures. Another study of more than 96,000 people found that the more milk men consumed as teenagers, the more bone fractures they experienced as adults.

The good news is that there are many nondairy options available if you want or need to avoid cow’s milk. Read on for a few great recommendations.

1. Soy Milk

Soy milk is made with either soybeans or soy protein isolate, and often contains thickeners and vegetable oils to improve taste and consistency. It typically has a mild and creamy flavor. However, the taste can vary between brands. It works best as a substitute for cow’s milk in savory dishes, with coffee or on top of cereal.

In terms of nutrition, soy milk is a close nondairy substitute for cow’s milk. It contains a similar amount of protein, but around half the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates. It is also one of the few plant-based sources of high-quality “complete” protein, which provides all the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids that cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from the diet.

On the other hand, soy still has some controversy, and people are often confused over its effects in the body. This is mostly because of the large amounts of isoflavones in soy. These can affect estrogen receptors in the body and affect the function of hormones. While this topic is widely debated, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that moderate amounts of soy or soy milk will cause harm in otherwise healthy adults. In fact several large scale research studies and meta-analysis have demonstrated a beneficial role of soy in reducing the risks for breast and prostate cancer.

2. Almond Milk

Almond milk is made with either whole almonds or almond butter and water. It has a light texture and a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. It can be added to coffee and tea, mixed in smoothies and used as a substitute for cow’s milk in desserts and baked goods.

Compared to cow’s milk, it contains less than a quarter of the calories and less than half the fat. It is also significantly lower in protein and carbohydrates. It is one of the lowest-calorie nondairy milks available and is a great option for those wanting or needing to lower the number of calories they’re consuming. Almond milk is also a natural source of vitamin E, a group of antioxidants that help protect the body from disease-causing substances known as free radicals.

Almond milk is a less concentrated source of the nutrients found in whole almonds, including protein, fiber and healthy fats. This is because almond milk is made up of mostly water. In fact, some brands contain only 2% almonds. These are often blanched with the skin removed, which reduces the fiber, protein, vitamin and mineral content. To make the most of the nutrients and health benefits of almonds, select brands of almond milk that contain a higher content of almonds, around 7–15%.

3. Oat Milk

In its simplest form, oat milk is made from a mixture of oats and water. Manufacturers often add extra ingredients such as gums, oils and salt to produce a desirable taste and texture. Oat milk is naturally sweet and mild in flavor. It can be used in cooking in the same way as cow’s milk, and tastes great with cereal or in smoothies.

Oat milk contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, about twice the number of carbohydrates and about half the amount of protein and fat. Oat milk is high in total fiber and beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that forms a thick gel as it passes through the gut. Beta-glucan gel binds to cholesterol, reducing its absorption in the body. This helps lower cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, the type associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

One study in men with high cholesterol found that consuming 25 ounces (750 ml) of oat milk daily for five weeks lowered total cholesterol by 3% and LDL cholesterol by 5%. Additionally, research has shown that beta-glucan may help increase feelings of fullness and lower blood sugar levels after a meal.

Oat milk is also cheap and easy to make at home. Take one part steel cut oats (you can use any oats, but steel cut or whole groats provide the best texture and flavor) to two parts water and soak overnight until oats absorb liquid and soften. Throw the mixture into a powerful blender until oats are pulverized and the mixture is smooth. Adjust ratios if you prefer the resulting liquid thinner or thicker. Run the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth until liquids are separated from pulpy solids. The resulting liquid is your oat milk. 

4. Rice Milk

Rice milk is made from milled white or brown rice and water. As with other nondairy milks, it often contains thickeners to improve texture and taste. Rice milk is the least allergenic of the nondairy milks. This makes it a safe option for those with allergies or intolerance to dairy, gluten, soy or nuts. Rice milk is mild in taste and naturally sweet in flavor. It has a slightly watery consistency and is great to drink on its own as well as in smoothies, in desserts and with oatmeal.

Rice milk contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, but about twice the carbohydrates. It also contains less protein and fat.

The glycemic index (GI) of rice milk is high (79–92), which means it is absorbed quickly in the gut and rapidly raises blood sugar levels. For this reason, it may not be the best option for people with diabetes. Due to its low protein content, rice milk may also not be the best option for growing children, athletes and the elderly. This is because these populations have higher protein requirements.

Rice milk has also been shown to contain high levels of inorganic arsenic, a toxic chemical found naturally in the environment. Long-term exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic has been associated with an increased risk of various health problems, including certain cancers and heart disease. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that people consume rice as part of a balanced diet that includes a variety of grains. Solely relying on rice and rice products is not advised, especially for infants, toddlers and pregnant women.

For most people, drinking rice milk should not be a cause for concern. However, if rice happens to make up a significant part of your diet, then it could be beneficial to diversify your diet by eating a variety of grains, including other nondairy milks.

5. Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is made from a mixture of cashew nuts or cashew butter and water. It is rich and creamy and has a sweet and subtle nutty flavor. It’s great for thickening smoothies, as a creamer in coffee and as a substitute for cow’s milk in desserts. As with most nut-based milks, the nut pulp is strained from the milk. This means the fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals from the whole cashew are lost.

Cashew milk contains fewer than one third of the calories of cow’s milk, half the fat and less protein and carbohydrates. Due to its low protein content, cashew milk may not be the best option for people with increased protein requirements.

With only 25–50 calories per cup, unsweetened cashew milk is a great, low-calorie option for those looking to reduce their total daily calorie intake. The low carbohydrate and sugar content also makes it a suitable option for people who need to monitor their carb intakes, such as people with diabetes.

Cashew milk is also one of the easiest milks to make at home: Soak 1 cup of cashews overnight, then drain and rinse. Add the cashews and 4 cups of water (plus any sweeteners) to a high-powered blender. Blend on high for a minute. Pour into a storage container and refrigerate.

6. Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. This is the same species used to make the drug cannabis, also known as marijuana. Unlike marijuana, hemp seeds contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects. Hemp milk has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and a thin, watery texture. It works best as a substitute for lighter milks such as skim milk.

Hemp milk contains a similar amount of fat to cow’s milk, but around half the calories and protein. It also contains fewer carbohydrates. It is a good option for vegans and vegetarians, since one glass provides 2–3 grams of high quality, complete protein, with all the essential amino acids.

Additionally, hemp milk is a good source of two essential fatty acids: the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid. Your body cannot make omega-3s and omega-6s, so you must obtain them from foods.

Unsweetened hemp milk is very low in carbohydrates, making it a great option for those who want to reduce their carb intake. If this is a priority for you, avoid sweetened varieties because they can contain up to 20 grams of carbs per cup.

7. Quinoa Milk

Quinoa milk is made from water and quinoa, an edible seed that is commonly prepared and consumed as a grain. The whole quinoa grain is very nutritious, gluten-free and rich in high-quality protein. Quinoa has become a very popular “superfood” over recent years, with quinoa milk fairly new to the market. For this reason, it is slightly more expensive than other nondairy milks and can be a little harder to find on supermarket shelves. Quinoa milk is slightly sweet and nutty and has a distinct quinoa flavor. It works best poured onto cereal and in warm porridge.

Quinoa milk contains a similar number of carbohydrates to cow’s milk, but fewer than half the calories. It also contains less fat and protein.

Quinoa milk is a good plant-based source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans. If it is available at your local supermarket, then it could be worth trying.

A few things to Consider When Substituting

With a wide range of nondairy milks available on supermarket shelves, it can be difficult to know which one is best for you. Here are a few important things to consider:

  • Added sugar: Sugar is often added to enhance flavor and texture. Stick with unsweetened varieties over flavored ones, and try to avoid brands that list sugar as one of the first three ingredients.

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products and is essential for a healthy brain and immune system. People who limit or avoid animal products from their diets may want to choose milk that is fortified with B12.

  • Cost: Nondairy milks are often more expensive than cow’s milk. To cut costs, try making plant-based milk at home.

  • Additives: Some nondairy milks may contain additives such as carrageenan and vegetable gums to achieve a thick and smooth texture. While these additives aren't necessarily unhealthy, some people prefer to avoid them.

  • Dietary needs: Some people have allergies or intolerance to certain ingredients used in plant-based milks, such as gluten, nuts and soy. Be sure to check labels if you have an allergy or intolerance.

The Bottom Line

There are a number of reasons you may need or choose to forgo cow’s milk, including allergies, ethical reasons and concerns over health risks.

Fortunately, there are many great alternatives available, including the seven in this list. There is no one milk that’s ideal for everyone. The taste, nutrition and cost of these alternatives can vary considerably, so it might take a while to find the one that’s best for you.

Fabio AlmeidaeZine48