There are so many types of milk and non-dairy alternatives to choose from that it might be driving you nuts. If you can’t decide whether you should be pouring almond milk over your cereal or adding oat beverage to your coffee, you’re not alone. We asked two dietitians to help us uncover which milk substitute really is best for your health.
People have been drinking milk for thousands of years, so it’s technically an ancient food with a lot of nutritional benefits because it’s also a whole food,” says Nishta Saxena, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and owner of Vibrant Nutrition.
“There are studies showing that nutrients are absorbed better when we’re consuming food that’s naturally occurring and in its most whole form,” she says. And dairy is loaded with calcium, a full spectrum of B vitamins, phosphorus, key fatty acids and protein. Plus, milk is fortified with vitamin D. In addition, you can opt for milk from brands that farm grass-fed cows, ones that contain A2 protein (which can make it easier to digest), and ones that offer certified organic milk. “Within the cow’s milk market there a variety of choices.”
But not everybody can, or wants to, drink cow’s milk. And that’s OK, because there is truly an alternative for every situation—and more options are arriving on grocery store shelves all the time. (In total, 161 milk alternative beverages were launched in Canada between January 2018 and February 2021, and sales are expected to skyrocket to more than $469 million (US) yearly by 2025). “There’s something to suit every taste and nutritional need,” says Saxena.
But I can’t do dairy
If you’re avoiding milk because you have a problem with lactose, you’re in good company. Roughly seven million Canadians have a lactose intolerance, which means their bodies don’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme that helps you digest the naturally occurring sugar present in foods that contain sheep’s, goat’s, and cow’s milk, including cheese and yogurt. People who are lactose intolerant can experience cramping, bloating and diarrhea when they drink a milkshake or add cream to their coffee, for example. To be clear, unlike celiac disease, lactose intolerance isn’t a food allergy, in which the body mounts an immune response.
“It’s not harmful to you, but it can be unpleasant,” says Adrienne Ngai, a registered dietitian in Vancouver. If you’re opting for a milk alternative due to tummy trouble, but can’t resist a morning latte, the next best thing from a nutrition perspective is to use lactose-free milk, since it’s the same as regular milk, only with the lactase enzyme added to it.
Not all plant-based options are equal
If you’re following a vegan diet, the milk alternative with the closest nutritional profile to cow’s milk is unsweetened fortified soy beverage. “Soy milk is naturally higher in protein since it’s coming from a bean,” says Ngai. “And then when it’s fortified, the manufacturer may add vitamins A, B12 and D, along with calcium.”
When you’re comparing other vegan non-dairy beverages, while they don’t align as closely to the nutritional profile of cow’s milk, they each have their own benefits. Oat milk, for example, contains more fibre, and hemp milk is a good source of iron. Some plant-based milks are also being bolstered with pea protein to pump up their nutritional profile.
“Manufacturers are trying to address the lack of protein we see in many of the plant-based milks,” says Ngai.
Unfortunately, most non-dairy milks, including almond, cashew and oat, also contain binders and emulsifiers to keep the extracts blended and suspended in water. “I think those additives are problematic if you’re drinking them in large quantities,” says Saxena. When you’re staring down the wall of milk alternatives at the grocery store, be sure to opt for one that’s fortified, since fortification of plant-based beverages isn’t required by law, and some brands don’t contain these essential nutrients. People with diabetes or those who need to manage their blood sugars should also opt for a beverage that’s clearly labelled as unsweetened.
“The words Original Beverage don’t necessarily mean unsweetened just because the drink isn’t chocolate or vanilla flavoured,” says Ngai. “You have to look for that specific labelling and read the nutrition panel.” Ideally, you want a milk product without added sugars.
Which milk is best?
Once you’ve narrowed your choices according to your nutritional needs, you may want to consider your selection’s environmental impact. But which milk is most environmentally friendly is a complex debate. Cow’s milk may have overall higher impacts, but each nondairy beverage has pitfalls, too: Almond milk, for example, creates lower greenhouse gas emissions and uses less land than soy, but requires a vast amount of water to create. “Ultimately, there can be a place for all of non-dairy milk alternatives, but you should consider your options and personal needs carefully,” says Saxena. “At the end of the day, you should really understand what you’re putting into your body and what role each particular food plays in keeping your body balanced, nourished and healthy.”
“Look for specific labelling and read each nutrition panel carefully so you’re purchasing an option with no added sugars,” says Ngai.