A Milk by Any Other Name

Explore the many delicious, dairy-free milk options
Published January 11, 2016

Dairy products, including milk, have long been considered an important part of a healthy diet, but some people avoid them for one reason or another. People who can’t properly digest lactose, the natural sugar in cow’s milk, choose lactose-free alternatives. Some vegetarians opt for plant-based alternatives to all animal products, including milk, eggs, and honey. Some ecologically conscious consumers look for greener alternatives to the dairy industry. And, of course, there are those who simply do not like the taste of cow’s or goat’s milk.

Luckily there are many alternative “milks” that can be found in many grocery stores across the country. In addition to the soy beverages that have become staples over the years, several other alternatives are gaining popularity among consumers—like almond milk, rice milk, coconut milk, oat milk, and hemp milk.

But not all milks are created equal. If you decide to replace your dairy with a milk alternative, make sure you know what you’re getting. 

Rice milk

Some hail rice milk as the most hypoallergenic and readily digestible of the milk alternatives, and one that offers a range of nutritional benefits. Made from filtered water and brown rice, many brands typically contain rice syrup, evaporated cane juice or another natural sweetener, so it’s thinner and sweeter than milk.

Rice milk is cholesterol free and has the lowest fat content of any of the milk alternatives—a one-cup serving has just one gram of fat, and its unsaturated. The milk contains many of the essential nutrients found in the bran and germ of this whole grain, including niacin, vitamin B6, magnesium, iron, copper,and the antioxidants manganese and selenium.

On the other hand, rice milk is as starchy as its source food. One serving can contain a whopping 33 grams of carbohydrates—three to four times more than milk or unsweetened soy drinks. Rice milks are also comparatively low in protein, with just one or two grams per serving. While rice milk is not naturally high in calcium—a serving provides just 1% of your daily need—many brands are calcium-fortified and also have added vitamin D and B12.

Rice milk is a good substitute in cooking, but if you use it as a substitute for dairy, look to other food sources for your protein.

Almond milk

Like rice milk, almond milk is relatively low in protein and is not considered a milk serving in Canada's Food Guide. However, it is a good source of magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, vitamin E, selenium, and calcium. Unsweetened varieties also have less fat and sugar than other types of non-dairy milk. A cup of unsweetened Dean’s Silk pure almond milk has just one SmartPoints value, while the original version has three, and the vanilla variety has four.

Almond milk’s sweet taste makes it delicious straight from a glass, poured on breakfast cereals, or puréed with frozen berries or bananas for a smoothie. It’s not ideal for mashed potatoes or pasta sauces, but it’s a nice substitute in sweeter dishes

Coconut milk

The coconut milk you’ll find in your refrigerated beverage aisle is a creamy dairy alternative made from soaked and strained coconut flesh. Don’t confuse it with the canned product used in cooking or with the liquid inside a coconut—called coconut water!

In some respects, coconut milk is the flip side of rice or almond milk—a one-cup serving has just one gram of carbohydrates but a relatively high five grams of fat, all saturated. Unlike saturated fat from animal sources, however, coconut milk contains medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) that are readily absorbed and digested by the body rather than stored as fat. Half the MCFAs found in coconut milk are composed of lauric acid, which is also present in human milk and has been shown to have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-microbial properties.

Fortified coconut milks provide 50% of the daily requirement of vitamin B12, 45% of the daily requirement of calcium, and 25% of the daily requirement of vitamin D. Many brands have a mild, sweet flavour, but some brands have a heavy coconut flavour—so shop around for a taste that suits you! The original flavour of Dean’s pure coconut milk has three SmartPoints values. 

Oat milk

Although still primarily available in health food stores, oat milk is gaining in popularity and availability across Canada. It is high in fibre, is cholesterol and lactose free, and contains vitamin E, folic acid, and other trace elements and minerals.

Oats are also rich in phytochemicals, naturally occurring compounds that may be beneficial for health. However since it is derived from a cereal crop, it’s not good for people with gluten intolerance.

Like rice milk, oat milk is relatively high in sugar and the unfortified versions do not have the calcium and protein content of cow’s milk. A one-cup serving has six SmartPoints values. The milk’s distinctive oat flavour doesn’t appeal to everyone right out of the glass—but others find it delicious.

Hemp milk

Help milk is derived from hemp seeds legally grown in Canada. It probably goes without saying that hemp milk does not contain THC—the active ingredient in marijuana. It’s a great alternative for people who are allergic to soy, gluten, and/or tree nuts.

Hemp milk is a good source of complete protein in that it contains all 10 essential amino acids. It also contains even more calcium than cow’s milk. An 8-ounce serving delivers nearly half of the recommended daily allowance of this essential mineral.

Furthermore, hemp milk is a good source of magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, Vitamins C and A, and omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Like oat milk, hemp milk has a strong flavour, some call “earthy.” This milk is ideal for use in smoothies, cereal, soups, and baking, where other ingredients mask the strong flavour.

Soy milk

Soy drinks, still the most widely available milk alternative, are made from whole soybeans or soy protein concentrate. Soy beverages match cow’s milk in terms of protein content, supplying 6 to 9 grams of protein per one-cup serving. Most are also fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D, vitamin B12 and zinc.

But check the label for added sugar. While "unsweetened" soy beverages contain no added sugars, those labelled "original" or "plain" aren't usually sugar-free. They typically contain 5 to 10 grams of sugar per one-cup serving. And chocolate-flavoured soy beverages can have 24 grams of sugar per serving. That’s why the unsweetened variety has two SmartPoints values per one-cup serving, while chocolate and vanilla flavoured soy milks an have anywhere between three and six.

The bottom line

Regular milk is still a very good choice and recommended by Weight Watchers, but if you need to avoid it, then choose a milk alternative that provides a good source of protein and calcium, which may mean seeking out fortified versions. Otherwise, you’ll need to get those nutrients from other sources. And watch for that added sugar—in some cases, it’s the equivalent of six to eight teaspoons worth per serving!