Once upon a time, milk was touted as an essential drink for strong bones and growing children. And it’s still a common product in most fridges. But as dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, and concerns over the environment and welfare of dairy cows continue to increase, people are turning to a wide range of dairy-free alternatives, often referred to as ‘mylk’ or ‘alt-milk.’
This change of tide is having a significant impact on dairy farmers, who saw sales drop about $1.1 billion in the U.S. alone in 2018. In contrast, alt-milks had a market size of about $11.9 billion in 2017 — a number that experts foresee rising to over $34 billion over the next five years. Whether this is a fad or not remains to be seen.
In the meantime, what are these dairy-free alternatives to milk and what are they best used for? Let’s find out.
Until about 2008, soy milk was pretty much the only dairy-free alternative to cow’s milk for consumers — and even then, it was really only for people who couldn’t tolerate lactose or dairy. The problem with soy milk is that it doesn’t taste great, even when manufacturers add sugar and thickeners. It’s best used in coffee, where you only need a splash and can avoid the bean-like flavor. Bonus: it’s one of the only plant-based milks that doesn’t separate in hot drinks.
Nutritionally, it offers about 8 grams of protein per serving. But it’s important to purchase organic soy milk so as to avoid GMOs.
Almond milk has been a favorite among consumers for the last decade, though it’s been made in China since at least the 14th century. Homemade versions often contain just soaked almonds, water, and vanilla, while store-bought products tend to contain a few other ingredients, too. Almond milk has a subtle nutty taste and is perfect for use in things like chia pudding (and regular pudding!), baked goods, french toast, smoothies, and cauliflower purees.
Nutrition-wise, almond milk has about 30 calories per serving (in unsweetened variations) and is low on the glycemic index. It isn’t, however, a significant source of protein.
Coconut milk comes from the flesh of brown coconuts and water, and it’s sold in two ways: in cans, and a thinner version in cartons. Coconut milk has a definite coconut flavor, which can discourage some people from drinking it. However, canned coconut milk is especially good in Asian recipes, like soups and curries, as well as in fruit smoothies. It’s also popular with granola — sort of a mix between milk and yogurt.
Nutritionally, one cup of coconut milk has about 45 calories and 4 grams of good fats. It has the lowest amount of protein and carbs of any plant-based milk, at essentially zero each.
Oat milk is having a moment right now, so much so that the market has experienced a few shortages. One oat milk producer increased production by 1250% last year and still couldn’t keep up with the demand! They’ve (perhaps ingeniously) created a barista version, too, which doesn’t split in hot drinks and foams the way cow’s milk does. Oat milk is great mixed into the batter of muffins or a loaf, and can also be enjoyed by itself, heated and topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon.
A cup of oat milk contains about 25% of your daily vitamin D dose, 2 grams of fiber, 5 grams of fat, and about 120 calories.
Other up-and-coming dairy-free milk options include pea milk (lots of protein but a bean-like flavor), macadamia milk (hard to find but exceptionally creamy), cashew milk (more calcium than cow’s milk), and hemp milk (rich in omega-3 fatty acids).