Naturopathic Kitchen: Milk 101

You are probably familiar with the famous tagline “Got Milk?” along with images of celebrities sporting milk mustaches and espousing the health benefits of cows milk. Today, however, milk alternatives are increasing in popularity. Many people develop a deficiency of the enzyme lactase that is needed to digest sugars found in cow dairy. 1 2 Without the ability to properly digest cow dairy, they may experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and persistent abdominal pain. The pasteurization process further destroys important digestive enzymes needed to properly digest milk. For these reasons, cow dairy is a prominent food sensitivity for many people, even if they do not experience a true allergic response.

As a result, a considerable number of non-dairy milk alternatives have emerged on the market. Milk alternatives are made from a variety of plant sources such as nuts, seeds, and grains. Each variety has a unique nutritional profile, flavor, color, and texture as well as other properties such as its ability to combine with other liquids or be used in baking. People who wish to stop or decrease using cows milk may substitute from a range of plant-based options as well as milk from other animals such as goats. Here is a brief guide to the most popular non-dairy milk alternatives.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is made by soaking almonds in water, blending them, and then straining out the liquid from the pulp. Almond milk has a mild, slightly nutty flavor. Many people following a low-carbohydrate diet choose almond milk because it is significantly lower in carbohydrates than cow’s milk. 3 Be aware that processed almond milk may contain a lot of added sugars, gums, and other fillers. When choosing your almond milk, opt for an unsweetened variety.

Oat Milk

Water and oats are combined and then milled into a smooth liquid to make oat milk. Oat milk has a mild, naturally sweet flavor that makes it a great option for granola, smoothies, adding to coffee and tea, and using in dessert recipes. Oat milk’s sweetness means that it does not pair well with savory flavors. Oat milk is a good source of beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that helps to lower LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol levels in the body. 4 One study found that participants who consumed 25 ounces of oat milk per day for five weeks lowered their LDL cholesterol by 5%. 5 Note that many commercial oat milk products contain added oils, gums, and salt. Always read the ingredients and choose an oat milk that has few additives.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is made by pressing the white flesh of coconuts to extract liquid. It is sweet and has a distinct coconut flavor, which makes it a delicious addition to desserts and some curry dishes, but not necessarily a fit for other savory recipes. Unlike some milks, coconut milk is not a good source of protein. 6 However, it contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are linked to improved cardiovascular health. 7 Coconut milk is also a good alternative for those who do not wish to consume dairy products but have a tree-nut allergy and cannot have nut milks. 

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made from either soybeans or soy protein isolate. It is creamy and has a fairly neutral flavor, similar to cows milk. Soy milk is a good source of various nutrients, including protein and vitamin D. 8 However, soy is a widely debated ingredient because there is some evidence that it may affect estrogen receptors and the function of hormones. 9 Studies have not conclusively shown whether soy can be harmful, but there is no evidence that suggests consuming moderate amounts of soy milk will have a negative effect. 10 Commercially grown soy is also high in pesticide residue, so opt for organically grown soy.

Goats Milk

Goats milk is creamy and tastes similar to cows milk, but with a slightly stronger, tangier flavor. It can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. Goats milk is high in nutrients and contains less lactose than cows milk, which makes it easier for many people to digest. 11 12 Research also shows that goats milk may improve the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. 13 

To make it simple to quickly compare and contrast milks, we’ve put together a handy chart with the pros and cons of the most popular milks and milk alternative below.

How is it Made?ProsCons
SoyProduced from soaking and grinding soybeans, boiling the mixture and filtering the remaining particlesBecoming widely available, thickest of the alternative milks, longer shelf-life than dairy milk, can be stored at room temperature for monthsCommon food allergen and can be difficult to digest; often contains gums, fillers, and added sugar. If not organic, it is likely a GMO and contains pesticides
AlmondProduced from blending almonds in water and passing through a filterGood alternative to dairy and soy milks, lower calorie (unless sweetened), high in vitamin EOften contains gums, fillers, and added sugars. Typically contains the non-active form of vitamin D (D2). Made from skinless almonds with most fiber and antioxidants removed
CowMilked and bottled directly from cowsMost versatile, can be processed into many different types of dairy products that have a long track record of use. Highest in natural micronutrient and good quality fats (when grass-fed)High incidence of allergy or lactose intolerance. May contain added hormones and other xenobiotics that the cow ingested
GoatMilked and bottled directly from goatsEasier to digest and less allergenic than cow dairy. Nutrients and minerals are more bioavailable than cow dairyHas a strong flavor and smell that may be unpleasant to some
CashewRaw cashews are soaked in water, blended, and filteredGood flavor and often thicker than other alternative milks. Contains significant amounts of tryptophan which may increase serotonin.Often contains gums, fillers, and often added sugars. Typically contains the non-active form of vitamin D (D2). Has a higher rate of intolerance or allergy than other alternative milks
CoconutGrated pulp is soaked in hot water, squeezed, and filteredHigh in healthy fats and medium chain triglycerides. Higher in vitamins and minerals than other alternative milks. Can improve digestion and aid in constipationOften contains gums, fillers, and often added sugars. Typically contains the non-active form of vitamin D (D2). Canned varieties may contain BPA (an industrial chemical used to make plastic)
RiceBlend cooked rice with water and strainedLess allergenic than cow dairy, easy and inexpensive to make at home, low in fat and cholesterol free, good source of B vitamins, manganese, and seleniumHigher in sugar and carbohydrates than other milk alternatives, may contain high levels of arsenic, may contain additives like gums, thickeners, as well as added sugar
HempHemp seeds are blended with water, salt, and sweetener, then strainedIs a complete protein and contains healthy fats including omega 3. It is also a good source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, Vitamin D, and B vitamins among others. Will not cause the “high” associated with marijuana (THC)Does not mix well and can separate in drinks like coffee; can be challenging to find
OatOats are soaked, drained, blended with water and salt, then strainedCreamy flavor, rich consistency, blends well with other beverages (i.e. coffee), Good source of iron, heart-healthy, may lower cholesterolCommercial varieties may be full of additives, preservatives, and sugar. Often cross-contaminated with gluten via processing facilities. Not as nutrient-dense as other milk alternatives


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