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Almond Milk, Oat Milk, Coconut Milk: What To Know About Dairy Alternatives

April 23, 2021

When topping off your breakfast cereal, your choices used to be whole, reduced fat or fat-free milk.  But nondairy alternatives, such as almond milk and oat milk, have exploded in the past decade. Between 2009 and 2015, worldwide sales of nondairy milk alternatives more than doubled, while cow’s milk decreased 13 percent in the U.S. during roughly the same time frame.

Why are so many people turning to dairy alternatives? Let’s explore the nondairy options, why some consumers are making the switch, and how to choose the healthiest alternative.

While nondairy options have been around for decades, choices were typically limited to soy milk and rice milk sold in nonperishable cartons. Now, the possibilities for nondairy sources and products seem endless. Milks, cheeses and yogurts are made from a variety of plant sources, including:

  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, coconut[LB1] )

  • Seeds (flax, hemp)

  • Grains (oats, rice)

  • Legumes (soy, pea)

Why Choose Dairy Alternatives? 

There are a wide range of reasons why so many consumers are making the switch from cow’s milk. Here are a few:

  • Food allergies

  • Lactose intolerance or sensitivity

  • Dietary preferences such as veganism, vegetarianism, plant-based diets, clean eating

  • Health concerns over saturated fat and other additives in cow’s milk

  • Environmental and sustainability concerns

The companies producing nondairy alternative products know that today’s consumer is more willing to try something new, too. So the desire to experiment with different tastes and textures is another reason someone might choose these products over traditional dairy.

Pros and Cons of Dairy Alternatives

Plant-based fats in dairy alternatives are healthier than animal-based fats. Unless you’re consuming skim milk or fat-free cheeses and yogurt, whole and reduced-fat dairy products contain saturated fat, which is associated with heart disease when consumed in large amounts over a long period of time. In comparison, nondairy options, especially those from nuts, contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

But health professionals recommend cow's milk because it provides calcium, vitamin D, protein and a variety of micronutrients the body needs, especially when it comes to building strong bones. Would you be missing out on these nutrients if you cut dairy from your diet?  Not necessarily, as long as you get these vitamins and minerals from other foods.

Calcium sources:

  • Calcium-fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and fruit juices

  • Fish with soft bones, such as canned sardines and salmon

  • Leafy green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, and bok choy

  • Calcium-fortified tofu

Vitamin D  sources:

  • Beef liver, cheese and egg yolks 

  • Fish liver oil, such as cod liver oil

  • Fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna

  • Fortified products, such as orange juice and soy milk

Protein sources:

  • Beans, peas and lentils

  • Meat, poultry and eggs

  • Nuts, seeds and soy products

  • Seafood 

While you might be able to get some of these same nutrients from dairy alternatives, they differ greatly in their nutritional value. The solution? Read the labels to see what each product contains.

Choose the Right Dairy Alternatives

Look at the nutrition label carefully  to know exactly what’s in the product and what nutrients might be missing. Watch out for added sugars commonly found in flavored varieties of dairy alternatives such as vanilla-flavored almond milk. Opt for unsweetened products instead. Also, check to see if the product contains any added nutrients, such as protein, calcium or vitamin D. If you’re vegan, you might also consider taking a supplement to fill in any nutritional gaps.


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