Most people have heard about the many brands of non-dairy milk. You have probably seen the variety of options on commercials and in your grocery store. You may be wondering, “what’s the best milk alternative for me?”

Let’s start by defining “milk.” According to Merriam-Webster, milk is “a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young.” Based on this definition, technically none of the non-dairy milk alternatives should really be called “milk.” Also, based on this definition, there is no reason for human adults to consume cow’s milk anyway! Setting that fact aside, let’s dig deeper into the options. 

Milk substitutes and the facts

Since the introduction of alternative milk beverages, the dairy industry has fought hard to show why traditional cow’s milk products are the better choice. As in any competitive market, the non-dairy industry is pouring money into marketing that tells consumers how traditional dairy is bad for you. The truth is, neither side of this great milk debate is essential for optimum health and well-being. However, non-dairy alternatives have some merit.

The health benefits of milk alternatives

Here are some examples of the possible health benefits of alternative milk beverages:

  • Similar to cow’s milk, most milk alternatives are fortified with vitamins and minerals. If calcium intake is a concern for you, make sure your alternative milk choice is fortified with this mineral.
  • All milk alternatives fit into a vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based lifestyle.
  • Milk alternatives are naturally lactose free.

Each type of milk has its own unique properties.

  • Hemp – high in omega 3 and 6 fats, which may help improve several aspects of heart health, including lower blood pressure, lower triglyceride, and total cholesterol levels.
  • Oat – high in soluble fiber, which may lower cholesterol and decrease risk for constipation.
  • Almond – the unsweetened is a low-calorie option.
  • Coconut – contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which may increase good cholesterol (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL).
  • Soy – closest to cow’s milk in nutritional content.

While there are likely additional pros and cons of the health benefits according to each side of the milk debate, the good news is that you do not need to necessarily pick a side. Unless you have a medical reason to avoid one over the other, such as lactose intolerance or a nut or soy allergy, all “milk” can be included in a healthy eating plan. 

Use your body’s internal cues to select what is right for you. Perhaps you like oat milk in your cereal and almond milk in your coffee, but also enjoy a cold glass of cow’s milk with your cookies! By listening to your body and responding with what is needed at the time, you will be satisfied physiologically and emotionally.

Don’t deprive yourself, but also refrain from overindulging. Variety is probably best. Choosing a variety of “milk” options provides your body with different nutrients at different times. But from an overall health perspective, it is recommended that you limit the sweetened varieties of alternative milk beverages.   

If you have specific medical concerns, speak with a qualified registered dietitian to determine which options might be right for you. You can learn more about how our dietitians can help you here.

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN, is director of well-being for Lifespan Human Resources and is a clinical dietitian and former program manager for the Lifestyle Medicine Center.