Non Dairy Milk Alternatives Health Benefits & Their Impact on The Environment

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What Options Are Available When It Comes to Non-Dairy Milk

Choosing the right non-dairy milk alternatives for you isn’t just about fat content. What sort of nutritional value does it have? How does it benefit your heart or digestive system? 

Non-dairy milk alternatives


More and more people across the world are questioning the consumption of not only cow’s milk but animal products in general. Non-dairy milk or plant-based milk has been consumed for centuries in various cultures, but only in the last decade or so have they made their way to our local shelves.

The options are confusing. Near limitless. How do you know what to choose?

Almond Milk

Almond milk is a popular alternative for home and commercial use. You can top up your coffee and lattes with barista blended options that want for nothing compared to the creaminess that comes with cow’s milk. 

It’s made by soaking almonds in water, blending them, and straining away any solids. For obvious reasons, almond milk isn’t safe for people with a tree nut allergy. But, aside from that, it’s a tasty alternative that’s lower in calories and carbohydrates than cow’s milk.

That being said, plenty of brands add sugar to their almond milk, so double-check the label to avoid sweetened milk if that’s not what you want.

Cashew Milk

Made from whole cashews and water, cashew milk is a rich and creamy alternative. When fortified, cashew milk comprises healthy vitamins and minerals. Cashew milk can also replace cow’s milk in most recipes, even in baking. Packed with magnesium, cashew milk is great for nerve function, heart health, and blood pressure regulation.

Oat Milk

While oat milk doesn’t necessarily have the same benefits as eating a bowl of whole-grain oats, it is still nutritious. And naturally sweet too. Oat milk also contains natural soluble fiber, making it great for the gut and naturally creamier than other non-dairy milk alternatives.

Soy Milk

In terms of nutrition, soy milk comes the closest to cow’s milk as an alternative. This is partly because soy is a significant source of protein. It’s also fortified during the manufacturing process, making its nutritional profile similar to that of milk.

Soy milk has, however, been the subject of some controversy because most of the soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified. Some brands make organic soy milk, but it’s important to check the labels carefully.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk has a distinctive and pleasant flavor and is often used in cooking, particularly for dishes from India, Thailand, Brazil, and even the Caribbean and Hawaii.

Most cartons of coconut milk are blended with water to change the consistency to something similar to cow’s milk. It has less overall protein than almond milk, but plenty of brands fortify their products with nutrients.

Coconut milk is higher in fat than other plant-based milks, but these fats are typically linked to heart health benefits and good cholesterol.

Lesser-Known Options

If you’re interested in trying something that’s a little more off the beaten path, be sure to try out one of these lesser-known, but still heroic, options.

  • Hemp Milk
  • Pea Milk
  • Rice Milk
  • Hazelnut Milk

Hemp milk is made from soaked and ground hemp seeds. They’re high in protein and full of healthy omega-3 and omega-6. Pea milk is also a new starter in the world of plant-based milk, and while it has a lot in common with soy, it requires far less water.

What Benefits Do Non-dairy Milk Alternatives Really Give Me?

Many people choose to switch to nut-based milk or other alternatives because of health reasons. For those who struggle with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies, consuming cow’s milk can cause headaches, digestive discomfort, and allergic reactions. 

Some people make the swap simply because they like the taste or texture of plant-based milk. 

Dairy milk alternatives tend to have fewer calories and less overall fat, though we’ll exclude coconut milk from that. They also have higher water content, which makes for better hydration. Though every milk aside from soy has a lower protein value, many are fortified with other vitamins and minerals. 

Plant-based milks are perfect for people with a slow digestive system or who want milk options that are low in cholesterol. This does, unfortunately, come with a higher price tag. 

Though some alternatives like almond, coconut, or rice milk are roughly the same price as dairy milk, alternative options can be more expensive overall for the same volume.

What Are the Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Milk?

Plant milk alternatives have a lower environmental impact and require less land to produce, according to what is admittedly a limited study. The crux of the issue is unfortunately a bit more complicated than that.

For example, almond milk has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions but is known for its high water uses. Around 80% of the almonds used for milk in the US are grown in California, but in this sub-tropical climate, their necessary water consumption can add a significant level of stress to an already arid land.

Coconut milk, too, has a dark side. While it sounds tropical and romantic, in countries where coconuts are picked, workers are often paid less than a dollar a day. Because of global pressure to meet rising demands, rainforests are cut down to plant coconut trees. These offer very little biodiversity for the local animal population.

You can offset these problems on an individual level by supporting products that are Fair Trade but we must still acknowledge that the problem exists. 

Other plant-based milks like soy, oat, pea, and hazelnut are much more environmentally friendly. Pea milk is easily one of the most sustainable options available. It uses very little water and needs less fertilizer than any other option.

Oats are a low-impact crop and, when grown in rotation, create excellent crop diversity and reduce soil erosion. This lowers the risk of plant disease spreading and makes for a healthier environment.  

Plant-based milks are more environmentally friendly than dairy, but they have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. As long as you make conscious decisions when purchasing you should be fine. Even if it means paying a little extra for something that is ethically made.

Make the Right Choice For You 

Because of the wide variety of choices available to you, it’s understandable that you may feel overwhelmed. All non-dairy milk options offer various advantages for your health. Ultimately, it’s likely going to come down to personal preference more than anything.

Remember to check the labels for unwanted ingredients and ensure you’re buying your products from reputable sources!

Contact Dr. Threlkel to learn more about the health effects and benefits of non-dairy milk alternatives.

About The Author:

Picture of Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Karen Threlkel, Naturopathic Physician, Washington DC

Dr. Threlkel received her degree of Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine from The National College for Naturopathic Medicine (now called The National University of Natural Medicine) in Portland, Oregon. She also holds a Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology from The University of Maryland. She is licensed in Naturopathic Medicine by the Government of the District of Columbia Department of Health. Dr. Threlkel is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, past president & current member of the Washington DC Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

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