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Are Milk Substitutes Healthier Than Dairy Milk?

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Pharmacology

Updated Feb 04, 2021

    Are Milk Substitutes Healthier Than Dairy Milk?

    Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yogurt are good sources of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Unfortunately, not everyone can consume dairy products, either as a lifestyle choice (such as veganism) or due to lactose intolerance. Thankfully, there are dairy-free options available on the market—but are milk substitutes healthier than dairy milk?

    What is in dairy milk?

    Dairy, or products made from milk, are usually from cows or goats. Dairy products include milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and butter. In moderation, milk products are healthy additions to a balanced diet. Fortified milk contains fat, protein, sugars, vitamins, and minerals.

    One sugar that is found in cow, goat, and even human milk is lactose. There is an enzyme called lactase in the gut that is responsible for breaking down lactose in milk and dairy. However, a large percentage of Asians, including Filipinos, are lactose intolerant. Signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, gassiness, flatulence, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal discomfort after consuming dairy products.

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    What are milk substitutes?

    Soy milk

    First on the list of milk substitutes is soy milk. Soybeans are the main ingredient in tofu and other plant-based meat substitutes. Nowadays, soy milk is readily available in general grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. Additionally, peas can be made into milk the same way as soy milk.

    Even if you are not lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy, soy and bean milks are milk substitutes that are healthier than dairy milk. They are lower in calories, fat, and contain more protein than regular milk. The consistency is similar to cow’s milk and can act as a substitute in most recipes.

    Be sure to check the nutrition label to see if additional sugar or flavoring was added, as these can make soy milk less healthy.

    Nut milk

    If you are lactose intolerant and have a soy allergy, it may be hard to find an alternative for your cereal or coffee. Thankfully, milk made from nuts like almonds, cashews, and walnuts are now available in stores. Nut milks are made by soaking the nuts in water several hours, before draining, blending, and passing it through a sieve. Additional seasonings can give the the products more flavor.

    Almond milk is lower in calories, carbs, and fat than regular dairy products, making it one of the healthier milk substitutes. Almonds and cashews can even be used to make non-dairy cheese and butters, which are popular with vegans and dieters. The downside of nut milks is that they are low in protein, so you need to increase your meat or non-animal protein intake with meals.

    are milk substitutes healthier

    Grain milk

    Grains like rice and oats are nutritious both as a milk and a meal. These varieties of milk may be harder to find in general grocery stores, but are often in stock in specialty health stores. Many people also opt to make their own rice and oat milk at home.

    Compared to cow’s milk, rice milk is lower in calorie while oat milk has more fiber. However, the consistency and taste of grain milks are not suitable as substitutes for milk in baking or cooking. If you are on a low-carb diet or have diabetes, rice and grain milk may not be suitable. Consult your doctor before making the switch.

    Are milk substitutes healthier

    Coconut milk

    Another alternative to cow’s milk that is readily available in the Philippines is coconut milk. Coconuts can produce coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut cream. Each has their own consistency and nutrient content. Coconut milk and cream are popular in dishes like curries and desserts, as well as a dairy substitute in recipes.

    Coconut milk has a unique and subtle sweetness without added sugar. Because coconut is a fruit, it does not contain as much protein as animal products like dairy milk. However, coconut milk is not always one of the healthier milk substitutes. While dairy products are available in skim, low-fat, or full-fat varieties, coconut milk is rich in fat—and not the good kind (saturated fat).

    The downside of coconut milk is that it is calorie-dense and contains high amounts of saturated fat. Coconut milk and oils are suitable for special diets (e.g. ketogenic diet, vegan diet); however, it may not be good as a milk substitute on a daily basis. If you are trying to watch your fat and calorie intake, use coconut milk in moderation.

    Key takeaways

    In summary, some milk substitutes are healthier than dairy milk. While milk is nutritious, not everyone can drink it. Each milk substitute has its pros and cons. Do not give an infant milk substitutes unless directed by your pediatrician. Talk to your doctor if you are unsure whether or not you should avoid dairy.

    Learn more about Healthy Eating here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Written by

    Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD


    Updated Feb 04, 2021

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