Cow’s milk is considered a staple in many people’s diets. It is consumed as a beverage, poured on cereal and added to smoothies, tea or coffee.
While it is a popular choice for many, some people can’t or choose not to drink milk due to personal preferences, dietary restrictions, allergies or intolerances.
Fortunately, if you’re looking to avoid cow’s milk, there are plenty of non-dairy alternatives available. This article lists nine of the best substitutes for cow’s milk.
Cow’s milk boasts an impressive nutrient profile. It’s rich in high-quality protein and important vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus and B vitamins.
In fact, 1 cup (240 ml) of whole milk provides 146 calories, 8 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 13 grams of carbohydrates (1).
However, cow’s milk is not a suitable option for everyone. There are several reasons you might be looking for an alternative, including:
- Milk allergy: 2–3% of kids under the age of three are allergic to cow’s milk. This can cause a range of symptoms, including rashes, vomiting, diarrhea and severe anaphylaxis. Around 80% of kids outgrow this allergy by age 16 (2, 3).
- Lactose intolerance: An estimated 75% of the world's population is intolerant to lactose, the sugar found in milk. This condition happens when people have a deficiency in lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose (4).
- Dietary restrictions: Some people choose to exclude animal products from their diets for ethical or health reasons. For example, vegans exclude all products that come from animals, including cow’s milk.
- Potential health risks: Some people choose to avoid cow’s milk due to concerns over potential contaminants, including antibiotics, pesticides and hormones (5, 6, 7).
The good news is that there are many non-dairy options available if you want or need to avoid cow’s milk. Read on for a few great recommendations.
Soy milk is made with either soybeans or soy protein isolate, and often contains thickeners and vegetable oils to improve taste and consistency.
It typically has a mild and creamy flavor. However, the taste can vary between brands. It works best as a substitute for cow’s milk in savory dishes, with coffee or on top of cereal.
In terms of nutrition, soy milk is a close non-dairy substitute for cow’s milk. It contains a similar amount of protein, but around half the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates.
It is also one of the few plant-based sources of high-quality “complete” protein, which provides all the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids that cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from the diet (10).
On the other hand, soy has become one of the world’s most controversial foods, and people are often concerned over its effects in the body.
Lastly, soy milk made from soybeans is not recommended for people with a FODMAP intolerance or who are in the elimination phase of the low-FODMAP diet.
FODMAPs are a type of short-chain carbohydrate naturally present in some foods. They can cause digestive issues such as gas and bloating.
However, soy milk made from soy protein isolate can be consumed as an alternative.
Summary Soy milk is made from whole soybeans or soy protein isolate. It has a creamy, mild taste and is the most similar in nutrition to cow’s milk. Soy milk is often seen as controversial, though drinking soy milk in moderation is unlikely to cause harm.
Almond milk is made with either whole almonds or almond butter and water.
It has a light texture and a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. It can be added to coffee and tea, mixed in smoothies and used as a substitute for cow’s milk in desserts and baked goods.
Compared to cow’s milk, it contains less than a quarter of the calories and less than half the fat. It is also significantly lower in protein and carbohydrates.
It is one of the lowest-calorie non-dairy milks available and is a great option for those wanting or needing to lower the number of calories they’re consuming.
What’s more, almond milk is a natural source of vitamin E, a group of antioxidants that help protect the body from disease-causing substances known as free radicals.
On the other hand, almond milk is a much less concentrated source of the beneficial nutrients found in whole almonds, including protein, fiber and healthy fats.
This is because almond milk is made up of mostly water. In fact, many brands contain only 2% almonds. These are often blanched with the skin removed, which greatly reduces the fiber, protein, vitamin and mineral content.
To make the most of the nutrients and health benefits of almonds, choose brands of almond milk that contain a higher content of almonds, around 7–15%.
Almonds also contain phytic acid, a substance that binds to iron, zinc and calcium to reduce their absorption in the body. This may somewhat decrease your body’s absorption of these nutrients from almond milk (18, 19).
Summary Almond milk has a light, sweet, nutty flavor and is low in calories, fat and carbohydrates. On the downside, it is low in protein and contains phytic acid, a substance that limits the absorption of iron, zinc and calcium.
Coconut milk is made from water and the white flesh of brown coconuts.
It is sold in cartons alongside milk and is a more diluted version of the type of coconut milk commonly used in Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines, which is usually sold in cans.
Coconut milk contains one-third the calories of cow’s milk, half the fat and significantly less protein and carbohydrates.
In fact, coconut milk has the lowest protein and carbohydrate content of the non-dairy milks. It may not be the best option for those with increased protein requirements, but it would suit those looking to reduce their carb intake.
What’s more, around 90% of the calories from coconut milk come from saturated fat, including a type of saturated fat known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
On the other hand, a recent review of 21 studies found that coconut oil may raise levels of total and “bad” low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol to a greater extent than unsaturated oils (26).
However, much of this research is based on poor-quality evidence and there is very little research on the effects of coconut milk specifically. At the end of the day, consuming a moderate amount of coconut milk as part of a healthy diet should not be a cause for concern.
Lastly, it is recommended that people with a FODMAP intolerance, or those who are completing the elimination phase of the FODMAP diet, limit coconut milk to a 1/2-cup (120-ml) portion at a time.
Summary Coconut milk has a creamy, milk-like consistency and a sweet, coconut taste. It contains no protein, little to no carbohydrates and is high in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of saturated fat.
In its simplest form, oat milk is made from a mixture of oats and water. Nevertheless, manufacturers often add extra ingredients such as gums, oils and salt to produce a desirable taste and texture.
Oat milk is naturally sweet and mild in flavor. It can be used in cooking in the same way as cow’s milk, and tastes great with cereal or in smoothies.
Oat milk contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, up to double the number of carbohydrates and about half the amount of protein and fat.
Interestingly, oat milk is high in total fiber and beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that forms a thick gel as it passes through the gut.
The beta-glucan gel binds to cholesterol, reducing its absorption in the body. This helps lower cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, the type associated with an increased risk of heart disease (29, 30, 31).
Oat milk is also cheap and easy to make at home.
Summary Oat milk has a mild, sweet flavor. It is high in protein and fiber, but also high in calories and carbohydrates. Oat milk contains beta-glucan, which can help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Rice milk is made from milled white or brown rice and water. As with other non-dairy milks, it often contains thickeners to improve texture and taste.
Rice milk is the least allergenic of the non-dairy milks. This makes it a safe option for those with allergies or intolerances to dairy, gluten, soy or nuts.
Rice milk is mild in taste and naturally sweet in flavor. It has a slightly watery consistency and is great to drink on its own as well as in smoothies, in desserts and with oatmeal.
Rice milk contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, but almost double the carbohydrates. It also contains considerably less protein and fat.
Of all the non-dairy milk alternatives on this list, rice milk contains the most carbohydrates — around three times as many as the others.
What’s more, rice milk has a high glycemic index (GI) of 79–92, which means it is absorbed quickly in the gut and rapidly raises blood sugar levels. For this reason, it may not be the best option for people with diabetes.
Due to its low protein content, rice milk may also not be the best option for growing children, athletes and the elderly. This is because these populations have higher protein requirements.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that people consume rice as part of a balanced diet that includes a variety of grains. Solely relying on rice and rice products is not advised, especially for infants, toddlers and pregnant women (42).
For most people, drinking rice milk should not be a cause for concern. However, if rice happens to make up a significant part of your diet, then it could be beneficial to diversify your diet by eating a variety of grains, including other non-dairy milks.
Summary Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic non-dairy milk. It is low in fat and protein yet high in carbohydrates. Rice milk contains high levels of inorganic arsenic, which may cause some potential health problems in those who consume rice as a main food source.
Cashew milk is made from a mixture of cashew nuts or cashew butter and water.
It is rich and creamy and has a sweet and subtle nutty flavor. It’s great for thickening smoothies, as a creamer in coffee and as a substitute for cow’s milk in desserts.
As with most nut-based milks, the nut pulp is strained from the milk. This means the fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals from the whole cashew are lost.
Cashew milk contains fewer than one third of the calories of cow’s milk, half the fat and significantly less protein and carbohydrates.
Due to its low protein content, cashew milk may not be the best option for people with increased protein requirements.
It could be worth switching to a higher-protein milk such as soy or oat if you have increased protein needs, or if you struggle to meet your daily protein requirements.
However, with only 25–50 calories per cup (240 ml), unsweetened cashew milk is a great, low-calorie option for those looking to reduce their total daily calorie intake.
The low carbohydrate and sugar content also makes it a suitable option for people who need to monitor their carb intakes, such as people with diabetes.
Lastly, cashew milk is one of the easiest milks to make at home.
Summary Cashew milk has a rich and creamy taste and is low in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. On the downside, it contains very little protein, and may not be the best option for those with higher protein requirements.
Macadamia milk is made mostly of water and about 3% macadamia nuts. It’s fairly new to the market, and most brands are made in Australia using Australian macadamias.
It has a richer, smoother and creamier flavor than most non-dairy milks, and tastes great on its own or in coffee and smoothies.
Macadamia milk contains one third the calories and about half the fat of cow’s milk. It is also somewhat lower in protein and carbohydrates.
It is very low in calories, with only 50–55 calories per cup (240 ml). This makes it a great option for those trying to reduce their calorie intake.
The low carbohydrate content also makes it a suitable option for people with diabetes or those looking to reduce their carb intake.
What’s more, macadamia milk is a great source of healthy monounsaturated fats, with 3.8 grams per cup (240 ml).
Increasing your intake of monounsaturated fats may help reduce blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, especially if it replaces some saturated fat or carbohydrates in your diet (47, 48, 49, 50).
Summary Macadamia milk is a relatively new milk to the market. It’s made from macadamia nuts and has a rich, creamy taste. Macadamia milk is high in monounsaturated fats and low in calories and carbohydrates.
Hemp milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. This is the same species used to make the drug cannabis, also known as marijuana.
Unlike marijuana, hemp seeds contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects (51).
Hemp milk has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and a thin, watery texture. It works best as a substitute for lighter milks such as skim milk.
Hemp milk contains a similar amount of fat to cow’s milk, but around half the calories and protein. It also contains significantly fewer carbohydrates.
It is a good option for vegans and vegetarians, since one glass provides 2–3 grams of high quality, complete protein, with all the essential amino acids.
What’s more, hemp milk is a source of two essential fatty acids: the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid. Your body cannot make omega-3s and omega-6s, so you must obtain them from foods (54).
Lastly, unsweetened hemp milk is very low in carbohydrates, making it a great option for those who want to reduce their carb intake. If this is a priority for you, avoid sweetened varieties because they can contain up to 20 grams of carbs per cup (240 ml) (55).
Summary Hemp milk has a thin, watery texture and a sweet and nutty flavor. It is low in calories and contains little to no carbs. Hemp milk is a great option for vegetarians and vegans because it is a source of high-quality protein and two essential fatty acids.
Quinoa milk is made from water and quinoa, an edible seed that is commonly prepared and consumed as a grain.
The whole quinoa grain is very nutritious, gluten-free and rich in high-quality protein.
While quinoa has become a very popular “superfood” over recent years, quinoa milk is fairly new to the market.
For this reason, it is slightly more expensive than other non-dairy milks and can be a little harder to find on supermarket shelves.
Quinoa milk is slightly sweet and nutty and has a distinct quinoa flavor. It works best poured onto cereal and in warm porridge.
One cup (240 ml) contains 70 calories, 1 gram of fat, 2 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates (56).
Quinoa milk contains a similar number of carbohydrates to cow’s milk, but fewer than half the calories. It also contains significantly less fat and protein.
It is made up of mostly water and contains 5–10% quinoa. This means that most of the protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals from quinoa are diluted.
It has a fairly well-balanced nutrition profile compared to other non-dairy milks. It is comparatively low in fat with moderate amounts of protein, calories and carbs.
Quinoa milk is a good plant-based source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans. If it is available at your local supermarket, then it could be worth trying.
Summary Quinoa milk has a distinct flavor and is slightly sweet and nutty. It contains a moderate number of calories, protein and carbs compared to other non-dairy milks. It’s a good option for vegetarians and vegans since it contains high-quality protein.
With a wide range of non-dairy milks available on supermarket shelves, it can be difficult to know which one is best for you.
Here are a few important things to consider:
- Added sugar: Sugar is often added to enhance flavor and texture. Stick with unsweetened varieties over flavored ones, and try to avoid brands that list sugar as one of the first three ingredients.
- Calcium content: Cow’s milk is rich in calcium, which is vital for healthy bones and preventing osteoporosis. Most non-dairy milks are fortified with it, so choose one that contains at least 120 mg of calcium per 3.4 ounces (100 ml).
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products and is essential for a healthy brain and immune system. People who limit or avoid animal products from their diets should choose milk that is fortified with B12.
- Cost: Non-dairy milks are often more expensive than cow’s milk. To cut costs, try making plant-based milk at home. However, one downside of making your own milk is that it will not be fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.
- Additives: Some non-dairy milks may contain additives such as carrageenan and vegetable gums to achieve a thick and smooth texture. While these additives aren't necessarily unhealthy, some people prefer to avoid them.
- Dietary needs: Some people have allergies or intolerances to certain ingredients used in plant-based milks, such as gluten, nuts and soy. Be sure to check labels if you have an allergy or intolerance.
Summary There are a few things to consider when choosing a cow’s milk alternative, including nutrient content, added sugars and additives. Reading food labels will help you understand what’s in the milk you are buying.
For many people, cow’s milk is a dietary staple.
However, there are a number of reasons you may need or choose to forgo cow’s milk, including allergies, ethical reasons and concerns over potential health risks.
Fortunately, there are many great alternatives available, including the nine in this list.
When making your choice, be sure to stick with unsweetened varieties and avoid added sugars. In addition, make sure your non-dairy milk is fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.
There is no one milk that’s ideal for everyone. The taste, nutrition and cost of these alternatives can vary considerably, so it might take a while to find the one that’s best for you.