The 11 Best Milk Substitutes for Your Health (see our list)

While many people choose to go diary-free due to allergies, dietary rules, or simply because they heard they should, there’s a number of other reasons folks are choosing to give up cow’s milk (and products made from/with it). Perhaps you’ve been curious if giving up milk might be the right choice for you, but you’re not sure what the best milk substitutes are or even where to begin.

Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. We’ll dive into the most common reasons to avoid dairy and, the best milk substitutes, and when to use them.

What are the Benefits of Going Dairy-Free?

Allergies to milk are second only to peanut allergies, affecting approximately 2 – 3% of the population. Symptoms can range from vomiting and diarrhea to hives and eczema to wheezing and shortness of breath, which can be life-threatening. In one study of children with food allergies, 19.9% had a milk allergy. 1 And it consistently ranks as one of the top 8 food allergens in the U.S., although some reports suggest that up to 80% of kids outgrow the allergy by the time they’re 16 years old. 2

Obviously, if you have an allergy to milk, it’s of utmost importance to avoid it—especially for those who have severe reactions. Yet more and more people are giving up milk for other reasons. These include:

Digestive Intolerance: Numerous people report stomach discomfort, cramps, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and even nausea after consuming milk. This can be caused by an intolerance to lactose (the sugar in milk) or one of the proteins in milk, for example certain types of casein (i.e., A1 beta-casein).

It is worth noting that ancestry appears to play a big role in how well you are able to digest milk proteins and sugars. Those with Nordic or European ancestry, which had a heavier dependence on dairy throughout the centuries, appear to do well with dairy products. Those who had historically low consumption of dairy, on the other hand, such as folks from Japan and China, are more likely to be intolerant. 3

However, many people who are less able to tolerate milk are often able to tolerate whey isolate protein powders (particularly hydrolyzed whey protein, such as that in Platinum 1) and fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, and certain types of cheese.

Respiratory Issues: Remember when your folks would tell you to avoid milk when you were dealing with a cold, if you had seasonal allergies, or if you had asthma? This is because, in some people, too much dairy may increase mucus production and make the symptoms worse. While the research is a bit mixed, it may be worth testing yourself if you’re experiencing breathing issues. 4 Removing cow’s milk from the diet is easy and may make a significant difference in mucus production for some.

Acne: If you are experiencing breakouts, dietary changes may be one of your best solutions, and that often starts with going dairy-free. While there are multiple theories about the connection and even debate over the incrimination of dairy in general, it’s thought that the protein in milk promotes insulin secretion and stimulates the production of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1), which in turn is a pivotal driver of acne. 5

While there are other reasons individuals have steered away from cow’s milk toward the best milk substitutes, the research is not conclusive on whether or not milk is truly a culprit behind those issues. That being said, some people choose to avoid milk to reduce calories to support weight loss, reduce consumption of saturated fat, decrease exposure to potential contaminants (like antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones), decrease inflammation and/or oxidative stress, or because they are choosing a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons.

The 11 Best Milk Substitutes

Whether you’re choosing to give up milk for a health issue (especially because of allergies), because you are preparing food for someone who is avoiding dairy, or just to try something new to enjoy greater dietary variety, a number of options are available.

Here are some of the best milk substitutes:

1. Coconut Milk

Made from the white flesh of brown coconuts combined with water, you can find cartons of the more diluted coconut milk in the refrigerated section, which ought not to be confused with the thicker, concentrated, more calorie-dense coconut milk found in cans.

One cup of this creamy nectar contains 45 calories with 4 g fat (including saturated fat and small amounts of MCTs) with virtually no protein or carbs. It has a slight sweet, distinct coconutty taste that can work well in many recipes but may also overpower others. All things considered, this is one of the best milk substitutes for your health.

2. Almond Milk

This light, slightly sweet, nutty milk substitute is one of the most popular. It can be added to coffee and tea, and it can be used in smoothies and baked goods recipes. A cup of unsweetened almond milk provides around 30 to 35 calories, 2.5 g of fat, 1 g of protein, and 1 to 2 g of carbs, making it one of the lowest calorie milk substitutes. It’s also a good source of vitamin E.

While there are commercial brands of almond milk readily available, it’s also very easy and less expensive to make at home. Simply soak a cup of raw almonds for at least 12 hours. (The longer they’re soaked, the creamier the milk.) Drain the water and then place the almonds in a blender with 3 cups of water and blend for at least 1 minute—starting on a low speed and moving up to a higher speed. Pour the mixture through cheesecloth or a nut milk bag, strain off the liquid, and save the spent almonds for a future recipe. If you want a sweeter milk, you can pour the “milk” back into a blender and add a pinch of sea salt and your favorite sweetener (such as stevia, honey, or maple syrup) and blend until smooth.

3. Hemp Milk

Made from the seeds of the hemp plant, hemp milk has a lighter, more watery texture than many of the other best milk substitutes. It works best for replacing skim milk rather than whole milk or cream.

A cup provides 60 to 80 calories, 4.5 – 8 g fat, 2 – 3 g of protein, and just 0 – 1 g of carbs, depending on the brand. While it doesn’t contain a lot of protein (only about a quarter of that found in cow’s milk), it is high-quality, complete protein with all of the essential amino acids, so it’s often recommended for vegetarians and vegans.

The vast majority of us don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids, and hemp is a good source of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid. Unsweetened hemp milk is also low in carbohydrates.

Hemp milk can also be made at home by adding ½ cup of hemp seeds (or hearts) to 3 – 4 cups of water. Blend on high until well blended (for a minute or more). To add more flavor, you can add a pinch of salt, stevia, a pitted date, or maple syrup for sweetness, or vanilla extract, cocoa powder, or fresh berries to boost the flavor.

And don’t worry, hemp seeds produce negligible, if any, THC (the mind-altering substance in hemp’s cousin plant marijuana), and as a result, hemp “milk” is THC-free.

4. Cashew Milk

This creamy, rich, slightly sweet mixture of nuts and water works well to thicken smoothies, as a creamer for coffee, in desserts, and in creamed soups (like cream of mushroom or cream of asparagus).

A cup provides 25 to 50 calories, 2 – 4 g fat, 0 – 1 g protein, and just 1 – 2 g of carbohydrates, making it a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate option.

Again, commercial brands are available. Just remember to watch for various additives. Or, you can make it at home. Simply soak a cup of raw, unsalted cashews overnight and then drain and rinse them. Add your soaked cashews to 4 cups of water in a blender. Blend on high for a minute. And it’s ready to drink (or store for future use). No need to strain.

5. Macadamia Milk

Similar to cashew milk, macadamia milk is rich, smooth, and creamy and works well on its own, in recipes, or even in coffee. It contains a few more calories at 50 – 55, but just barely, with around 5 g of fat, 1 – 5 g of protein, and a single gram of carbs, depending on the brand or if it’s made at home.

Some claim homemade macadamia nut milk tastes the closest to cow’s milk, with fewer calories and carbs. And it’s also one of the most keto-friendly and best milk substitutes.

Again, it’s easy to make at home. Soak a cup of your raw nuts for a few hours, drain, and rinse (it’s recommended you rinse a few times). Add the nuts to 4 cups of water and blend on high for 2 to 3 minutes. You can also add some vanilla or stevia for additional flavor if you so choose. You can strain, but you don’t have to—it’s your preference. If you choose not to strain, shake well before using, as settling and separation can occur.

Best Milk Substitutes

6. Mixed Milk

A number of brands offer nut milk blends, such as almond and cashew or almond and coconut, and you can also experiment with making your own nut milks by blending your favorite nuts and seeds using a similar recipe to those above. Some additional options to consider include Brazil nuts, coconut flakes, hazelnuts, and pumpkin seeds.

7. Rice Milk

Made from rice with added thickeners and flavors, rice milk is the least allergenic, so it’s often recommended for those who have food sensitivities. It’s also the mildest milk substitute in taste and tends to be watery on its own and in dishes.

A cup provides 130 – 140 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g protein, and 27 – 38 g carbs. Because it’s higher in rapidly-digesting carbs, lower in protein, and potentially high in the heavy metal arsenic, rice milk is best used only every once in a while as part of your milk rotation rather than being a star player day in and day out.

8. Oat Milk

Just as it sounds, oat milk is made by mixing oats and water. (To make it at home, just combine 1.5 cups of organic steel-cut or regular oats with 4 cups of cold water and blend for about a minute. With a fine mesh strainer, nut milk bag, or cheesecloth, strain out the “milk,” and it’s ready to use.) It can be a little thicker than other milks on the list, which some people enjoy but others aren’t a fan of.

Store-bought versions often have additional gums, oils, and salt added to improve taste or mouthfeel, so as always, double-check the ingredient list before purchasing if you decide not to just make your own.

This slightly sweet, mild milk substitute works well in just about any setting you would use cow’s milk, and one cup contains 140 to 170 calories with around 5 g of fat and 2.5 to 5 g of protein. It’s also understandably higher in carbohydrates than most of the other options (other than rice milk) with up to 29 g per one-cup serving.

Most interestingly, it’s also higher in fiber, including the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which has been shown to bind to cholesterol in the body and may therefore help lower cholesterol levels. It also increases satiety and may help stabilize blood sugar levels after a meal.
Perhaps what’s best about this particular milk substitute is that it’s very inexpensive and so easy to make.

9. Quinoa Milk

Much like those above, quinoa milk is available commercially and it can be made at home. Unlike oat milk, you do need to cook the quinoa first. To prepare, start with 1 cup of cooked and rinsed quinoa, blend it on high with 3 cups of water, and strain with a cheesecloth, nut bag, or strainer. You can easily adjust the consistency by adding more or less quinoa for thicker or thinner “milk,” respectively. After the milk has been strained, you can add dates, cinnamon, or other ingredients to adjust the flavor.

Like whole quinoa, quinoa milk is gluten free, low glycemic, and high in fiber, and it also provides essential fatty acids, complete proteins, and a number of vitamins and minerals; however, keep in mind that the amounts are diluted.

One cup will provide 70 calories, 1 g fat, 2 g protein, and 12 g of carbohydrates, so it’s not the best choice for those on a low-carb diet.

10. Banana Milk

Made with just two ingredients—1 banana and 1 cup of water—banana milk may be the easiest to make. It’s also rich in nutrients like B6, vitamin C, and potassium. It’s also one of the sweetest, and not surprisingly, tastes like banana.

For best results, start with frozen bananas or go with a half-cup of water and a half-cup of ice. You’ll also want to consume your full batch immediately. It works as an amazing base for a rich, creamy dairy-free shake if you use half the water or less. Add a scoop of vegan protein powder like Harvest for a milkshake-like treat. You can also add vanilla extract, cinnamon, or a dash of salt, and you can make it richer and creamier with added chia, flaxseeds, or your favorite nut butter.

11. Soy Milk

The “original” milk substitute, soy milk is made with soybeans or soy protein isolate, often with additional thickeners, gums, or vegetable oils to improve consistency or taste. The taste can vary drastically between brands, but it’s often considered to be one of the creamier, more mild-flavored milk substitutes. One cup provides about the same amount of protein (7 – 9 g of complete protein, meaning it provides all of the essential amino acids) with fewer calories (80 – 90), fats (4 – 4.5 g), and carbs (4 g) compared to cow’s milk.

Soy may be the most well-known, but it’s also the most controversial of the milk substitutes because it contains high levels of isoflavones, which can affect the estrogen receptors and hormone functions in the body. It’s also not recommended for those who experience digestive issues or those on a low-FODMAP diet, as it can lead to gas and bloating. Soy is also one of the most common GMO crops, and thus, may contain high levels of pesticides and herbicides. Many experts, in fact, recommend avoiding it completely. It’s really not one of the best milk substitutes, but since it is so common, we wanted to include it on the list.

Key Concerns with the Best Milk Substitutes

If you are going dairy-free, it’s worth noting that in one study with women ages 19 – 50 years old who were dairy-free, a mere 44% met their daily needs for calcium, and just 57% met their needs for magnesium and potassium. 6 So ensure you are including other foods in your diet to overcome any nutritional shortfalls.

In addition, if you make any of the milks above, please note that they last only around 3 or 4 days in the fridge. So, if you aren’t going to use much or if you’re just giving it a try, either make less or plan on freezing it in ice cube trays to add to recipes in the future.
After straining, don’t rush right to the trash with your leftover nuts or grains. You can increase the fiber and/or protein content of many recipes by adding the pulp in the place of almond or coconut meal, for example. And the pulp also freezes well for up to 6 months.

After straining, don’t rush right to the trash with your leftover nuts or grains. You can increase the fiber and/or protein content of many recipes by adding the pulp in the place of almond or coconut meal, for example. And the pulp also freezes well for up to 6 months.

If you are purchasing a brand from the store, watch for additives, especially sugar, poor-quality oils, and stabilizers. For example, many companies add an abundance of sugar to enhance flavor and texture, so reach for only the unsweetened varieties. Other common additives are carrageenan and vegetable gums, which may cause some tummy troubles. If you find you’re uncomfortable after drinking a store-bought milk substitute, you may want to try making it at home yourself to see if it’s better tolerated without the additives.

Best Milk Substitutes—A Wrap Up

If you’re choosing to limit or eliminate cow’s milk for any reason, you have a number of great choices, depending on your preferences, tolerance, dietary restrictions, budget, and availability. Try a variety and keep mixing it up with different choices—almond for a few days followed by coconut followed by oat, for example.