What You Need to Know About Nondairy Milk Alternatives

We're here to answer the most common questions about nondairy milk alternatives, plus share insights on baking with nondairy milk.

With new brands frequently popping up in grocery stores, cafeterias and coffee shops, plant-based milks are here to stay. It’s great that there are now so many options; however, the variety can be overwhelming. With milks made from rice, oats, flax, almonds and more—how do you know where to start?

Why can’t some people drink milk?

Cow’s milk contains lactose, a form of sugar that’s difficult for a large part of the population to digest. Some people can’t drink milk because of intolerance, allergies or dietary restrictions and need nondairy alternatives. Switching from cow’s milk to lactose-free milk or plant-based drinks might relieve allergy or intolerance symptoms, such as stomach issues, skin reactions or even respiratory conditions.

But be careful when reading labels. “Nondairy” and “dairy-free” don’t necessarily mean the same thing. While dairy-free usually means what it says, nondairy products may contain milk proteins such as casein or whey, or other milk derivatives. Always review the label’s ingredient list closely.

Is there a nondairy milk alternative that’s right for me?

After traditional cow’s milk, soy milk has the most protein. Rice and hemp milk are good picks for allergy sufferers, as they’re free of dairy, soy, nuts and gluten. Check plant-based drinks’ nutrition labels, as some varieties, especially flavored, sweetened versions, have quite a bit of added sugar. Opt for those with fewer calories, which usually means less sugar.

Do you have children with dairy-related dietary restrictions? See if nondairy milks are nutritious for kids.

9 Popular Nondairy Milks—and When to Use Them

When browsing for a milk alternative, give at least a couple products a try. Then, once you find a nondairy milk you like, experiment with different flavors and sweetened vs. unsweetened. Here’s our list of nondairy milk alternatives, along with notes on flavor and what each milk is best used for.

Almond Milk

With its light and subtle nutty flavor, almond milk is a great baking substitute and perfect in smoothies and smoothie bowls. It’s plain, but in a good way—one of our favorite “starter” nondairy milks. To enjoy the health benefits that almond milk offers, look for brands with 7 to 15 percent almonds. If the carton is unmarked, look for the brands with the highest protein.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk has a creamy consistency. On its own, the flavor can be too overpowering. It’s great in smoothies and as creamer in coffee, though.

Coconut Milk

You’ll find coconut milk sold in cartons and cans. Both are creamy, with a slightly sweet taste and subtle coconut flavor. The coconut milk sold in cartons works best for drinking and the cans are great for baking. (See how to cook and bake with coconut milk.)

Flax Milk

On the thicker side, flax milk is not too sweet and perfect for those who are dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free and soy-free. Serve it chilled with breakfast for a delicious start to your day.

Hazelnut Milk

This bold, sweet milk is perfect for stirring into cereal, with its flavorful taste. It’s also delicious on its own or stirred into coffee.

Macadamia Milk

This is the rising star in the nondairy milk world! It has a mild nutty taste and is oh so creamy. It’s our personal nondairy milk of choice in lattes.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is all the rage right now! It’s creamy, froths exceptionally well for lattes, and best of all: you can make it yourself. Just grab your blender, rolled oats, water and a pinch of salt and you’re ready to tackle our recipe for homemade oat milk.

Rice Milk

This naturally sweetened dairy-free milk tastes a lot like regular dairy milk. It has an overall neutral flavor with a hint of rice. Use it in baked goods for a simple substitution.

Soy Milk

If you’re looking for a smooth, basic milk alternative, soy milk will be perfect for you. It can be found in most stores, restaurants and coffee shops. Plus, when baking, soy milk makes for an easy neutral substitution.

Can I bake and cook with plant-based drinks?

You can substitute milk alternatives for conventional milk at a 1:1 ratio in most baking recipes, including cakes, cookies, muffins and pancakes. Choose milk alternatives that don’t contain flavoring or a lot of added sugar.

In other cooking, however, the type of milk matters. You’ll get very different results in a cream sauce made with almond milk than in one made with actual cream. If you must cook with a milk alternative, choose soy milk. It’s thicker than many milk alternatives and will result in a texture and consistency that most closely resembles traditional cow’s milk.

How much should I expect to pay for plant-based milk alternatives?

At more than $5 per half-gallon, premium organic milk from grass-fed cows tends to be the most expensive. Plant-based drinks typically fall in the $3 to $4 range per half-gallon as compared to a half-gallon of traditional cow’s milk at $1 to $2.50.

Wondering how all these plant-based drinks taste? Check out how eight varieties fared in our nondairy alternatives taste test.

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Originally Published in Taste of Home

Dana Meredith
Dana is an editor and writer who shares her passion for travel, food and the beauty of American landscapes. When she's not wielding her red pen, she can be found tending her flower gardens, remodeling her house, creating one-of-a-kind jewelry or dancing to "Uptown Funk."
Jenna Urben
Jenna is a food blogger focused on sharing allergy-friendly recipes. Her favorite ingredients include sweet potatoes, chickpeas and squash.