Beginner's Guide to Dairy Free Milk

December 1, 2016
By: Anna Pashkova, ACSM EP-C

Beginners Guide to Dairy Free Milks

With so many new dairy free milk alternatives appearing on grocery shelves, it can be overwhelming to keep up. From soymilk, to nut milks, pea milk, and even animal-free dairy milk, the options continue to expand. Whether you’re new to dairy milk alternatives or are looking to learn more, this post will explore some of the most common and up-and-coming dairy free milk options.

Why Choose Dairy Free Milk?

Milk Allergies: Some people have allergies to the proteins in milk such as whey, casein, or lactalbumin. An allergy involves an immune response that occurs on exposure to the same food or part of food. Allergies can be mild to life threatening, which is why some people cannot drink dairy milk. Milk allergies are most common in infants and young children and most outgrow them.

Lactose Intolerance: An intolerance is different than an allergy because it does not cause an immune response. Lactose intolerance occurs when the body does not produce enough of the lactase enzyme to digest the lactose in the milk. As we age, our bodies naturally produce less lactase, which is why adults tend to experience symptoms of lactose intolerance more frequently than children.

Dietary Restrictions: Many people choose to avoid consumption of dairy milk or animal products, in general. Some restrict dairy as a matter of taste and others, like vegans and ovo-vegetarians, consume only eggs, but not dairy. Reasons for dietary restrictions can vary from person to person due to health issues, ethics, environmental reasons, or a combination of these.

Ethical Reasons: The ethics behind avoiding dairy milk stems from how dairy cows are raised, fed, and slaughtered in industrial farming systems. There is also a belief that cow's milk is unnatural to consume, as it is intended for the calf, not for humans.

Environmental Reasons: The production of dairy products causes emissions of greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide) that have been shown to impact climate change. These gases are produced from the production of a cow's feed, manure, dairy processing, and cow burps. Producing dairy milk also consumes a large amount of water, contributes to fertilizer and manure runoff that pollute water sources, requires large amounts of land, and contributes to soil erosion.

Alternative Milk Options

Note that all of these options, if fortified, contain 50% more calcium than dairy milk, 45% daily value of calcium and 25-30% of daily values for vitamin D. The main differences are in taste, texture and protein content. Additionally, many are also fortified with other vitamins such as vitamin B12.

Pea Milk

One company, Ripple, has recently developed pea milk this past summer utilizing yellow peas. Peas are easily digested, hypoallergenic and full of branched chain amino acids. This milk is nut-free, lactose and dairy free, gluten-free, and 100% vegan. Although this milk contains the same amount of protein as dairy milk at 8 grams per cup, it is not a complete protein source. It also has 32 mg of omega-3 fatty acids from algal oil.

  • Consistency: comparable to whole fat dairy milk or soymilk
  • Taste: milder and less bitter than nut milk, great for plant-based milk newbies

Soy Milk

Soy milk has been around for awhile and was one of the first dairy free milk alternatives. Soy milk has a similar protein content as dairy milk and is a complete protein source. Many versions and flavors exist today, even fermented or probiotic soy milk exists for added benefits. It is also generally recommended as a heart healthy alternative to dairy milk. Soy milk  has 7 grams of protein per cup and is a good source of potassium, vitamins A and B12 and isoflavones.

  • Consistency: thick, smooth and creamy
  • Taste: bean-like (unsweetened and unflavored versions)

Nut Milks

Nut milks contain very little protein. One cup of both almond and cashew milk have zero grams of protein, while macadamia milk has 1 gram of protein. Nut milks are generally 50% lower in calories than pea milk, dairy milk, hemp milk and soy milk, which may help if you drink milk frequently and are trying to reduce overall caloric intake. Nut milks may also be a good option if you have a soy allergy or find that you simply prefer the taste.

Cashew milk

  • Taste: sweet, least nutty flavor of all nut milks
  • Consistency: creamy, smooth

Macadamia milk

  • Taste: semi-sweet
  • Consistency: rich, creamy, similar to cashew milk
Almond milk
  • Taste: nutty almond flavor, sometimes slightly sweet and can have hints of bitter
  • Consistency: varies by brand - some are thick and creamy, while others are thin

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is high in riboflavin, phosphorous, iron, magnesium and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It also contains all of the essential amino acids. It typically has a nutty flavor with a creamy texture. It is also easy to digest and has approximately 3 grams of protein per cup.

  • Taste: nutty and buttery, similar to a pine nut
  • Consistency: creamy

Rice Milk

Rice milk is the least nutrient-dense of all of the dairy free options and has approximately 1 g of protein per cup. Because of this, it may be beneficial for those with allergies or intolerances to dairy milk. It is also easier to digest than other milks.

  • Taste: very neutral
  • Consistency: thinnest of all milks


Animal-Free Dairy Milk

This type of dairy free milk is set to hit the shelves in 2017 and has a very interesting conception. It uses technology to create a beverage that looks, tastes, and has the same components as traditional cow milk, without the use of any cows. The company is called The Perfect Day and on their website they explain the process as being similar to craft brewing. The process uses dairy yeast, which is fed by sugar from renewable sources. Fermentation occurs, producing the same milk proteins that are found in cow’s milk – casein and whey. Nutrients similar to those in milk such as calcium, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are also added. Plant fats, sugars and minerals are then used to create a desirable texture and consistency, while avoiding the use of stabilizers, hormones, and lactose. It is also vegan, lactose-free, and gluten free. While it is GMO-free, genetic engineering is used to create the yeast that produces the milk proteins, which is also used to make insulin, ethical vanilla, and vegetarian rennet. There is no nutritional data available on this product yet, but this is definitely something to keep an eye out for!

Final Tips

Choose unsweetened versions and opt for the refrigerated dairy free milks over the shelf-stable kind. These will have less preservatives and artificial ingredients. If you’re extra adventurous, you can make your own! There are plenty of tutorials online if you’re interested.