Milk has long been a staple of the human diet. In fact, scientists have discovered evidence that our ancestors were drinking milk thousands of years ago. Although the beverage started out as something consumed by infants, over time, humans have evolved a “milk gene,” which has allowed them to digest the milk sugar known as lactose. Of course, not everyone can digest lactose—and those who cannot are considered to be “lactose intolerant.” In fact, an estimated 68 percent of the world’s population suffers from lactose intolerance, also known as lactose malabsorption, according to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIH).
This is one of the reasons for the surge in popularity of milk alternatives or milk substitutes. These milks do not come from cows, but rather plant-based foods that can provide a creamy flavor. Although they’ve been around since the 1980s, they’ve increased dramatically as more and more consumers convert to living a plant-based lifestyle. In fact, according to a report by Meticulous Research®, dairy alternatives are now worth an estimated $44.89 billion.
This is great news for those who are lactose intolerant, don’t prefer the taste of milk or who have committed to living a vegan lifestyle. What’s more: Drinking dairy alternatives comes with a slew of health benefits. Most are lower in calories and fat when compared to regular milk and some are even chock full of protein and other nutrients and vitamins.
If you’re looking to incorporate milk alternatives into your diet, here are the ones nutrition experts recommend.
One of the more popular milk alternatives, almond milk comes from almonds that have been soaked for long periods of time and then strained. It is an ideal option for those individuals who have dairy allergies or are lactose intolerant, according to Keri Gans, R.D., New York City-based nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet. If you buy calcium-fortified almond milk, the calcium levels will likely match or surpass cow’s milk. The levels of vitamins A, D, E and B12 in fortified almond milk also significantly surpass those in non-fortified cow’s milk and it is popular choice due to it’s low-calorie nature.
Another popular milk alternative is soy milk, made from pressed soybeans. “This milk alternative is high in protein, with about 7 grams per serving, as well as 2 grams of fiber,” according to Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N. and author of Eating in Color. “While some people are not sure whether soy is a good choice for them, there is no credible research that has found detrimental effects from soy foods,” she says. In fact some research has even found that moderate amounts of soy foods, including soy milk, may even help lower the chance of recurrence in breast cancer survivors, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Made from oats, this type of milk has a rich, creamy consistency and a very appealing flavor that resembles cow’s milk. For this reason, it’s an excellent milk substitute both in recipes or drinking alone. “Unlike milks made from soy and nuts, oats have the benefit of being low in allergens, so most people can enjoy it,” says Largeman-Roth. Her go-to brand for oak milk is Ripple Oatmilk+ Protein. “This new oat milk option is made from a base of gluten-free oats with additional protein from peas for a total of 6 grams of plant protein per 8-ounce serving, which is three times the amount of a typical oat milk,” she says. ‘Plus, the texture is super rich and works well in recipes, as well as in cereal.”
“Of all the alternative milks available oat milk is one of the highest in heart-healthy fiber with 2grams per serving,” Gans says. She recommends choosing a brand that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D so that you don’t miss out on these key bone-fortifying nutrients.
Rising to the top of the ranks for popular milk alternatives is peak milk, which comes from yellow peas, which are chock full of protein as well as iron and calcium, notes Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “Another plus with pea milk is that it has a lower carbon footprint than some of the nut milks, like almond,” he says. When purchasing pea milk, he recommends checking the label, as some are loaded with fillers, smoothing agents, sugars, and oils. He recommends opting for pea milks that are unsweetened and simply adding your own favorite sweetener, if necessary.
Flax milk comes from whole or ground flaxseed combined with water and it’s a great milk alternative, according to Jerry Bailey, D.C., LA.c., certified nutritionist, acupuncturist, chiropractic, and functional medicine physician at Lakeside Holistic Health. “With a super low calorie per serving design it provides two grams of protein, 2.5 grams of total fat (with no trans or saturated fat), three grams of carbs, 35 mg of highly absorbed calcium and 75 mg of potassium,” he says. “It is allergen-free and can fit into the diet of those that have issues with other non-dairy alternatives.”
With a decent amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can contribute to you getting your essential fatty acid requirements met, hemp milk is a great alternative to cow’s milk. “It is made from hemp seeds, which can serve as a complete protein, which means it has all the amino acids necessary for growth and repair of your body and other proteins it makes,” says Dr. Adams. “Just like soy milk, watch out for added sugars and calorie-traps, but it’s safe to consume 1-2 cups per day, even more if you are completely avoiding dairy.”