Around 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. This means they lack an enzyme called lactase, which results in an impaired ability to digest lactose, a milk sugar found in cow’s milk.
Consuming milk and dairy products leads to digestion problems like bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea in lactose intolerant people.
Cow’s milk is an integral part of nutrition—for calves! Short of mother’s breast milk, non-dairy, plant-based milk alternatives specially formulated for human digestion are probably better for us. Below, we’ll be looking at ten of these milk alternatives optimised for human nutrition (and not cow nutrition).
But first – what’s so great about cow’s milk?
We were raised on the idea that milk is a fundamental part of human nutrition. Cow’s milk is very high in protein, which is good for tissue repair and bodybuilding. It also contains calcium for our bones and vitamin D to improve calcium absorption.
However, it’s exactly this protein content (specifically a protein called casein) that proves difficult for human digestive systems to break down. Casein is soluble in milk, but curdles in the stomach and becomes hard to digest. Further, the calcium content of cow’s milk could actually be harming our bones instead of protecting them. Studies show that countries with high cow milk consumption also have the highest rates of osteoporosis; in contrast, countries where milk isn’t widely consumed have low incidences of fracture.
The truth is, humans don’t really need milk in their diet after they reach adulthood. There are plenty of other protein and calcium sources out there that won’t bring on the unpleasant symptoms of lactose intolerance. But milk is a necessary ingredient in baking and cooking, so it’s nearly impossible to write it off 100%. To this end, there are many available plant-based milks that are better-suited to human nutrition and digestion. Here are our top 9 plant-based milks:
1 – Soy milk
Nutritional value: Soy milk has no cholesterol, is low in sodium and saturated fat, and high in fibre, manganese, and vitamin B1. Soy milk contains isoflavones (which reduce risk for heart disease) and phytoestrogens (compounds so similar to estrogen that the body thinks it is estrogen, which is beneficial for women in reducing symptoms of menopause). Soy milk is typically fortified with vitamin A, vitamin D, and calcium.
Taste: Soy milk has a thick consistency, but on its own, it lacks flavour. However, it typically comes in sweetened varieties like chocolate, vanilla, and even cookies and cream!
Pros: It’s the milk alternative most similar to cow’s milk, so it can provide structure in baked goods and sauces. It has enough protein for curdling and thickening to substitute for buttermilk.
Cons: Soy milk does not contain calcium as it is, so you’ll need to make sure you get the fortified kind. It may also sometimes be thickened with seaweed-based additives, which can cause digestive problems in some people.
Try it! Use soy milk in this tropical mango and passionfruit soy cream dessert. Get the recipe here!
2 – Hazelnut milk
Nutritional value: After soy, nut milks are the most popular non-dairy milk alternatives – and there are ever so many! Hazelnut milk in particular has no cholesterol and no saturated fat. It’s often fortified with vitamins B1, B2, B6, and E, as well as iron and folic acid.
Taste: Hazelnut milk has a nutty flavour, more pronounced than the more popular almond milk. It tastes nothing like cow’s milk!
Pros: Hazelnut milk is free of gluten, lactose, and soy, so it’s a good choice for those who have allergies.
Cons: Hazelnut milk separates easily with heat, so avoid stirring into piping hot coffee or beverages.
Try it! Start the day with this coffee and hazelnut milk-infused variation of Sinh To Bo, a traditional Vietnamese avocado shake! Get the recipe here.
3 – Coconut milk
Nutritional value: 93% of calories from coconut milk come from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) called lauric acid. This makes it high in saturated fat (approximately 5 grams per serving). Coconut milk is rich in vitamin C, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, and protein.
Taste: Coconut milk tastes like nuts, and has the closest texture to cow’s milk compared to other milk alternatives.
Pros: Great milk alternative to those allergic to soy or gluten.
Cons: Coconut milk is high in saturated fat and MCTs. Although, the bright side to MCTs is that they go straight to the liver for metabolising, and are not likely to be stored as fat. Coconut milk might benefit those suffering from malnutrition or weight loss, or those looking to change up their body composition.
Try it! Coconut milk is a favourite in baked goods for its nutty flavour. Check out this recipe made with coconut milk for dairy-free chocolate fudge!
4 – Rice milk
Nutritional value: Rice milk is high in carbohydrates but low in protein. It contains calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamins A, D1, and D2.
Taste: Rice milk tastes slightly sweet, with a thin and watery consistency (typically thickened with seaweed additives or tapioca).
Pros: Rice milk is soy, gluten, and nut-free.
Cons: Rice itself is not rich in calcium or protein, and nor is rice milk! Check that your brand has been fortified with these nutrients. As the consistency of rice milk is usually thin, it’s not a good milk alternative for cooking or baking.
Try it! Still, you can enjoy rice milk in treats like the Mexican milk drink horchata! Check out this easy horchata recipe to get you started.
5 – Oat milk
Nutritional value: Oat milk has a high caloric content, though not as high as cow’s milk. It does however, have double the amount of carbohydrates as cow’s milk. Oat milk also beats nut milk when it comes to fibre and protein content. It contains a fibre called beta-glucan, which helps to decrease cholesterol levels. Commercial oat milk is fortified with nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
Taste: Oat milk has a toasty, starchy flavour.
Pros: It’s an excellent milk alternative for people with allergies to soy, nuts, and gluten.
Cons: The consistency of oat milk is usually thin like skim milk, but when heated, it becomes thick and gelatinous. As such, it’s inadvisable to use oat milk in your hot coffee, baked goods, or other recipes requiring heat.
Try it! Oat milk works great poured over cereal and mixed into smoothies, but you can shake it up some more with adventurous recipes like this vanilla tapioca pudding!
6 – Pea milk
Nutritional value: Unlike nut milks which are made by soaking in water and draining, pea milk is made by milling the peas into flour. The pea protein is then separated from the pea starch and fibre, blended with water and fortified with nutrients. Pea milk is high in protein. It boasts more calcium, potassium, and vitamin D than cow’s milk, while also having less sugar.
Taste: Pea milk retains its slight earthy, bean-like flavour. You might prefer the sweetened varieties.
Pros: This is vegan, nut-free, soy-free, and gluten-free. Plus, aside from beating cow’s milk, pea milk is higher in protein and calcium than other milk alternatives.
Cons: Pea milk is relatively new and still on the rise, so it’s not as available as other milk alternatives…yet.
Try it! Don’t knock it until you do! The unsweetened version of pea milk is used in this recipe for vegan cookies and cream ice cream.
7 – Potato milk
Nutritional value: Baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, potato soup, potato salad, chips, fries, hash browns…potatoes can be consumed in every way imaginable – and now you can drink them too! Potatoes start out as sources of carbohydrates, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 by themselves. Potato milk is fortified with vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, other B vitamins, calcium, and iron. It’s typically low in protein.
Taste: Potato milk tastes starchy, though it’s more neutral than soy or oat milk.
Pros: Potato milk is gluten, soy, and nut-free. It also contains no fat or cholesterol.
Cons: As potatoes are mainly carbs, their milk will be low in protein. Although it’s one of the easiest milks to make at home, homemade potato milk won’t have the same fortification with nutrients as commercially-bought potato milk.
Try it! Enjoy potato milk in this recipe for warm and tasty black bean and corn chowder!
8 – Hemp milk
Nutritional value: Hemp milk is high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and protein (though not as high in protein as soy milk). It contains vitamin A, vitamin B complex, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc. Hemp milk is low in calcium if not fortified.
Taste: Compared to soy milk, hemp milk has a nuttier and creamier flavour.
Pros: Hemp milk is easier to make at home than nut milks because the seeds are softer and cheaper. It’s also soy, nut, and gluten-free.
Cons: Hemp still carries the stigma of being associated with marijuana. But fear not – there’s no psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol in hemp seeds or hemp milk!
Try it! Take a crack at this crust-less gluten-free vegetable quiche that uses hemp milk. Check out how here!
9 – Sunflower milk
Nutritional value: Milk made from sunflower seeds contains protein, fibre, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins B and E. It also has tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes sleep and soothes anxiety.
Taste: Milk from sunflower seeds retain their earthy, seedy taste. Add a sweetener like cacao or vanilla to make it more palatable.
Pros: Sunflower milk is cheaper than nut-based milks, and requires much less water to make as well.
Cons: Sunflower seeds and their milk are prone to rancidity if not stored well. Keep your sunflower milk in a very chilly fridge and consume within 2-3 days.
Try it! Take sunflower milk a step further and make sunflower yogurt! Brighten your day with the recipe here.