Milk Substitutes 101: What to Use and Avoid

They’re not all created equal.

alternative milk guide
Photography by PHUONG NGUYEN

These days, it seems like everyone's getting on the non-dairy milk train—and for good reason. “The milks on the market these days are very hard on the body to digest because they’re highly pasteurized and homogenized,” explains Nikki Ostrower, founder of NAO Nutrition, a wellness-focused center in NYC. “So even if you’re not lactose intolerant, you might have a hard time digesting it because the body doesn’t recognize it as milk anymore.”

The result? All sorts of issues, including diarrhea, headaches, constipation, bloating, weight gain, and even hives. So, it’s only natural that you would look for a better alternative from the multitude of milk substitutes out there.

But did you know certain milks aren’t recommended, while others wouldn’t work well in baking or coffee? Below, we decode the best and most nutritious alternative milks for all your needs.

Almond Milk

Nutrition
Almond milk has gained popularity for its rich, smooth flavor, but it’s also rich in protein, B vitamins, and calcium. “It has a well-rounded nutritional profile,” says Ostrower.

Best Used For
Coffees or teas, especially if you’re a skim milk or low-fat milk drinker.

Cashew Milk

Nutrition
Technically a legume, cashew milk is often considered a nut milk alternative. “Slightly creamier than almond milk, cashew also boasts a great nutritional profile,” says Ostrower. “It has a ton of vitamins, including B6 and K, and a lot of minerals, including copper, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and iron.” It’s great for blood pressure, eye health, and heart health.

Best Used For
Smoothies, thanks to its thick and creamy texture.

Coconut Milk

Nutrition
As coconut milk is found in nature, it can be the safest—but again, it all depends on the brand. “Coconut is definitely high in fat, but it’s kind of like if you eat the fat [from coconuts], you lose fat,” says Ostrower. “The medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut milk are easily absorbed by the body for energy, so it actually lowers cholesterol levels and improves blood pressure.” So, bottom line? No need to fear good fat!

Best Used For
Due its high fat content and rich flavor, coconut milk works best as an alternative to cream—think creamy coffees or rich, healthy desserts.

Hazelnut Milk

Nutrition
Stronger in flavor than almond milk, hazelnuts are rich in protein, B vitamins, and magnesium. “They also have a very high antioxidant content, which helps prevent cells from oxidizing,” says Ostrower. “The high essential fatty acid content helps prevent cancer and heart disease as well.”

Best Used For
Hazelnut milk’s rich, creamy taste makes it best for baking.

Hemp Milk

Nutrition
“I like to make hemp milk because it’s really easy,” says Ostrower. “It has a really nutty flavor, but it’s a seed. It’s a great source of essential fatty acids, and it’s high in GLA (gamma-Linolenic acids), which help relax muscles and fight PMS symptoms.”

Best Used For
Due its relaxing effects, hemp milk would work best in calming, cozy drinks like hot chocolate or tea.

Macadamia Milk

Nutrition
Macadamia nuts can be expensive, so they’re not the most budget-friendly option. “But they happen to be a nutrient powerhouse, with ton of vitamins and minerals," explains Ostrower. "They're also rich in flavonoids, which are known for their high antioxidant content.”

Best Used For
Plain! With a taste described by Ostrower as “luxurious,” why would you want to mix it up?

Oat Milk

Nutrition
Oat milk tastes more like its source than other alternative milks, and is a wonderful addition to your diet. “It has tons of minerals and vitamins, and is low in fat. It’s also rich in calcium,” says Ostrower. And if you choose to make it at home, it’s way cheaper to buy a bunch of oats than the same amount of almonds.

Best Used For
Its slightly watery texture makes it great for savory recipes, and with granola.

Soy Milk

Nutrition
“Soy is one of the most heavily genetically engineered products out there. So, if you want to drink it, you want it to be organic,” says Ostrower. But even if you choose an organic brand, supermarket versions have tons of preservatives and sugar in them, in order to make them last longer on the shelf.

Naturally, soy is very high in phytoestrogens, which Ostrower says “are compounds that look like estrogen in the body. So some studies say that soy milk can actually disrupt our hormones.”

Best Used For
Nothing. “I don’t recommend soy milk,” says Ostrower.

See more wellness guides:
Everything You Need to Know About Himalayan Salt Therapy
The Whole Grains You Should Be Adding to Your Diet ASAP
The Best Tips Ever to Fight Jet Lag, From Wellness Experts

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Published on December 11, 2017 - 12:00pm EST

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