The Dairy Council, countless parenting books, the media, and doctors have been telling everyone for years that kids need cow's milk to stay healthy. And plenty of it, because cow's milk equals healthy bones, a lean trim body, great shiny teeth and more. If you didn't give your kid cow's milk, well, you were just considered a terrible parent.
Nowadays, things are a little different, because we know that cow's milk has some downsides: lots of added chemicals and hormones, 30 to 50 million Americans (adults and children) are lactose intolerant, milk is high in saturated fat -- and high saturated fat intake is linked to a host of problems including obesity, coronary artery disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and milk is a known eczema trigger.
And that's just the tip of the milky iceberg. We haven't even touched upon most health issues, animal cruelty issues or the environmental impact of milk. If you're interested in an alternative to cow's milk, keep reading to learn the pros and cons of 6 popular dairy-free milks. We wish a comprehensive guide like this was written when we were looking for dairy alternatives for our little ones several years ago -- so we're hoping this is a valuable resource for parents who are on the same mission today.
Soy milk [Soya milk ] image from Shutterstock
Soy milk has gone the way of birth control pills in recent years – use it, don’t use it, wait maybe you should use it? It seems every week there’s another story debating the pros and cons of soy milk. In fact, soy milk hype, both good and bad has reached almost intelligible proportions. You’ve got Mercola on the side of don’t drink it, along with plenty of other “soy is bad” hype “science” sites while Dr. Weil is pro soy milk as is the Harvard School of Public Health. And the Mayo Clinic offers a nice pro and con article on the subject.
Some soy milk pros:
- In general, soy milk is the least processed of all the alternative milks. Depending on the type you buy.
- High in protein.
- Very low in saturated fat.
- Organic soy milk is low cost and extremely easy to find.
- Soy milk used in products like smoothies, coffee drinks, ice cream and yogurt, translates well, and most of these products taste great.
Some soy milk cons:
- Soy is a common food allergy for many, but most common in children.
- Soy crops are some of the most contaminated when it comes to pesticides and GMO, so you must go organic.
- Some research says that too much soy may increase your isoflavones unfavorably, so it should be avoided. Others consider this only a moderate problem.
- Soy milk has a thicker texture and often gets lumpy near the bottom of the container.
- Many people don’t like the taste. Personally, I don’t mind it. Except that I will say if you use it in foods like mashed potatoes or baked goods, it can leave a funny nutty taste, until you find a killer brand that doesn’t.
Top view of nutritious almond drink with almond seeds image from Shutterstock
Some almond milk pros:
- Many people think almond milk is one of the best tasting alternative milks in town. It’s a bit sweet, a little nutty and has a pretty decent, not too thick texture.
- Good source of magnesium and vitamin E.
- Low in fat.
- Most almond milks have less sugar than cow’s and soy milks.
Some almond milk cons:
- Almond milk is very low in protein.
- Usually comes with added preservatives and thickeners. You can avoid this by making homemade almond milk.
- Not safe for folks with nut allergies (obviously).
- Almond milk can be a more expensive alternative milk and in some cases harder to find, though this is changing.
- Almond ice cream is not the best, in my opinion, and it has a harder texture than other alternative dairy ice creams — but it is good to bake with.
hemp products: oil, milk, powder, seeds – image from Shutterstock
As far as alternative milks go, hemp has stayed largely out of the limelight thus far. Likely because it’s so new. To date, there are not many debates about the pros or cons of hemp milk, which at least means less hassle for you when chatting with other folks who drink alternative milk.
Some hemp milk pros:
- High in Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids — although it’s important to note that this is not the same omega (EPA and DHA) found in fish oil.
- Milk made from hemp seeds and nuts do not pose the same allergy threats that milks made from nuts, soy and dairy do. That said, other research shows it may cause allergies in kids — so it’s divided.
- Low sugar drink.
- A zero cholesterol beverage.
- Hemp milk tastes great, has a decent texture and can be used successfully to make many delicious foods too, like ice cream.
Some hemp milk cons:
- Made with thickeners.
- Some research shows that protein in hemp milk may not be as good as protein in soy milk.
- More expensive and harder to find.
- Hemp is illegal in the USA, meaning hemp seeds travel from Canada to get here, or the milk is made in Canada — a con if you could buy an alternative milk locally instead.
Coconut milk and coconut image from Shutterstock
It seems all I hear about lately is coconut this and coconut that. As someone who can’t stand the taste of coconut, I’m not on board with coconut milk, but that doesn’t mean everyone else isn’t, even though there are plenty of known pros and cons.
Some pros of coconut milk:
- Low in carbs, cholesterol and sodium.
- It’s got a very creamy texture if that floats your boat.
- Contains “healthy fats” that are rich in lauric acid.
- Has a lot of vitamin B12.
Some cons of coconut milk:
- Highest amount of saturated fat of any alternative milk.
- Coconut milk can often solidify and separate which makes in undrinkable unless you heat it up.
- Low protein.
- Not safe if you’re allergic to nuts.
- Often contains additives which means go organic or make your own.
- Coconuts aren’t grown in many places, thus coconut products of all kinds tend to increase your carbon footprint.
- A more expensive milk.
- Some people find the flavor way overwhelming. Personally, I’m one of them. I think it tastes weird in baked goods and other foods. Even coconut milk ice cream tastes too coconutty to me – if you love coconut, this won’t be a problem, if not well…
A Healthy Dry Oat meal in a wooden spoon image from Shutterstock
Oat milk, like hemp is newer to the market, thus far less debated than soy milk, rice milk and almond milk.
Some oat milk pros:
- A good source of vitamin E and folic acid.
- Oats have long been considered a vital part of a heart healthy diet, due to high levels of phytochemicals.
- Beyond heart health, oats have countless other health benefits.
Some oat milk cons:
- High in sugar.
- Doesn’t contain very much protein or fiber.
- Thinner texture making it not as suitable for baked goods.
- Not great if you’re gluten-intolerant.
- Contains added thickeners.
- Conventionally grown oats contain a ton of pesticide residue, so you must go organic.
- It’s a newer alternative milk so it’s harder to find.
Brown rice in a green bowl on a bamboo mat image from Shutterstock
Rice milk, like soy, is one of the veteran alternative milks. Even so, you won’t find as many debates about rice milk. Most people consider it a fairly healthy drink as long as you go organic — however it has one major con: sugar.
Some rice milk pros:
- Low in fat and calories. Good news for adults, less so for many kids.
- Has a decent sweet flavor so it’s great for baked goods.
- One of the easiest alternative milks to make homemade.
- Less expensive than some other alternative milks.
Some rice milk cons:
- Lacks some really important nutrients like protein, vitamin A and fats found in other alternative milks.
- Conventional rice milk is likely loaded with pesticides (rice is a high pesticide crop) and often other chemicals. You have to go organic with rice milk, and even then arsenic may be an issue.
- Many consider rice milk the best option if you have soy or nut allergies.
- It’s usually enriched – a con for some, but some people don’t care.
- Rice is a naturally high in sugar food. You should be aware of this, because sugar is not always listed on rice milk packaging, as it’s naturally occurring.
- Thickeners and oils are often added for texture and taste — again though, it’s easy to make homemade and avoid this.
Lead image via Shutterstock