Best 22 milk alternatives
What are the best alternatives to cow's milk? Registered nutritionist Nicola Shubrook discusses the best dairy-free, vegan and animal-based milk alternatives available on the market
Over recent years, supermarket shelves have been flooded with alternatives to cow’s milk, which is great if you have a dairy allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity, are vegan or perhaps want to use something different from an environmental standpoint.
These alternatives can be grouped into two main categories:
Animal-based alternatives: these are milks that come from other animals, such as sheep or goats, or may be a low-lactose or alternative to traditional cow’s milk
Plant-based alternatives: they resemble milk in the same way, except that they come from a variety of different plant proteins, such as nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and even vegetables.
Each milk alternative has a different taste, and the one you choose often comes down to preference or how you are going to be using it, for example adding to tea or coffee or using in baking and cooking.
Here, we look at some of the pros and cons of adding milk alternatives to your diet:
- They make a great alternative to cow’s milk if you have trouble digesting dairy or lactose
- Certain alternatives are a good source of protein
- They can be bought in both organic or fortified versions
- Most of them are low in saturated fat and contain healthy fats, such as mono and polyunsaturated fats
- Plant-based milks contain some fibre, which is not found in animal-based milks
- Animal-based alternatives are still a great source of calcium
- Non-organic plant milks are fortified with key nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and B12
- Organic plant milks are not fortified
- Even if they are fortified, plant-based milks cannot be relied on to supply enough calcium and other key nutrients in your diet – other food sources are needed
- They are more expensive than cow’s milk
- Plant milks often contain preservatives, thickeners and stabilisers, which cow’s milk doesn’t
- Not all plant milks are as environmentally friendly as they may appear
- Animal milk alternatives still may not be suitable if you have a cow’s milk allergy or are lactose intolerant
- A lot of brands have added sugars, so look for unsweetened varieties for the healthier alternatives
1. Soy milk
Soy milk is made from soybeans and is probably one of the most popular plant-based milk alternatives, as it's very versatile and can be used in pretty much all recipes and drinks in place of cow’s milk.
Pros: it's a good source of protein and calcium and is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fats
Cons: it often comes with added sugars and thickeners, and may still be a problem for some as soy is a common allergen
Environmentally, the debate continues as to whether soy milk is better than cow’s milk. Deforestation has been a big drawback as the world demands more soy and plant-based alternatives, so to reduce your impact, it's best to choose organic soy.
2. Oat milk
Oat milk has seen a particular surge in popularity recently, as it ticks lots of boxes when it comes to sustainability.
Pros: it's versatile and often gluten-free, so it may be suitable for those with Coeliac disease. They're higher in fibre, including a soluble fibre called beta-glucans, which may help lower cholesterol.
Cons: pesticides can often be used in conventionally grown oats, including weed killer glyphosate, which is a known carcinogen. Organic brands are less likely to be affected, but check with individual manufacturers for more information. While oats are typically gluten-free, they can often be cross-contaminated and may not be suitable for those with a Coeliac gluten sensitivity.
The good news is, that oat milk does have a lower environmental impact when compared to soy and almond milks.
3. Potato milk
Yes, you can make a plant-based milk using potatoes.
Pros: suitable for those with nut allergies, and it is gluten-free. Potato milk also contains healthy fats, carbs, proteins and fibre, making it a balanced choice compared to other milks
Cons: potato milk usually has quite a lot of added extras to give it better texture and flavour, including pea protein and rapeseed oil
Potatoes are very sustainable, and the milk requires less water to produce than other plan-based milks. It has a low carbon footprint, making it a good choice environmentally.
Make the dressing for this vegan tagine with apricot quinoa using potato milk instead.
4. Hemp milk
Made from hemp seeds, hemp milk is a vegan plant-based alternative that has a slight nutty flavour.
Pros: hemp milk is a good source of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and is one of the few plant-based complete proteins, which means it contains all the essential amino acids that we need from food as the body cannot make them itself. It's also naturally gluten-free.
Cons: nutritionally, there aren’t many downsides to hemp milk. The nutty taste can be quite distinctive, so may not be as versatile as other milk alternatives. Watch out for brands that contain added sugar.
Environmentally, hemp milk appears to be one of the best milk alternatives, as the whole plant can be used, but more research is needed.
5. Pea milk
Yes, you can get milk made from peas (not the green peas in your freezer, but yellow split peas) – though it's not green and doesn’t taste of peas. In fact, it's quite creamy and more milk-like than other plant-based alternatives. It's made by first grinding the yellow split peas into a flour; the protein is then extracted and combined with water to make the milk.
Pros: peas are legumes, which means pea milk is a good source of nutrients, including iron and calcium. It's also gluten-free and a good source of protein
Cons: pea milk does tend to contain oils, sweeteners and thickeners to improve the taste and texture, so look for unsweetened varieties
Environmentally, pea milk appears to have a lower footprint in terms of farming compared to other plant-based milk alternatives like almond milk, but it can clock up more food miles depending on where the crop is grown.
Pea milk will work a treat in this easy vegan mac ‘n’ cheese recipe.
6. Almond milk
Almond milk is widely available these days, from supermarkets to coffee shops, and has a mild, nutty taste.
Pros: it's low in calories, versatile for drinking and cooking and is a good vegan alternative
Cons: while almonds are a good source of protein, almond milk isn’t. Many brands are also sweetened and contain a thickener called carrageenan. This comes from red seaweed, but may cause digestive issues for some. It's also not suitable for those with nut allergies
Almonds require pollination from bees to grow, and there has been concern about the demand for bees to pollinate almond trees, combined with the pesticides that are often used by large-scale almond growers, which is toxic to both bees and humans. As well as the bees, almond plantations require over six litres of water to make one litre of almond milk, and the majority of almond trees are grown in California, an area that has suffered from severe drought for many years. Almond milk, as a result, is now falling out of favour environmentally.
7. Hazelnut milk
Hazelnut milk has a stronger nutty taste than almond milk and is best used in coffee and baking.
Pros: it's low in calories and naturally gluten-free, with no cholesterol or saturated fat. Hazelnut milk also contains vitamin E, which helps promote skin, hair and heart health.
Cons: like almond milk, hazelnut milk can be high in sugar and contains little protein
Compared to almond milk, hazelnuts have a better environmental footprint as they require the wind for pollination, rather than bees, and use much less water.
Add hazelnut milk to these delicious vegan Brownies to add a slightly nutty taste.
8. Cashew milk
Cashew milk is rich and creamy in its consistency and has a milder taste compared to other nut milks.
Pros: it's naturally gluten-free and vegan and low in calories. Cashew milk also contains calcium and vitamin D, as it's usually fortified, and is a good source of vitamin K, which is needed for blood clotting
Cons: it's low in protein and contains no fibre, and there are many sweetened varieties, which have extra sugar. It is also not suitable for those with a nut allergy
Environmentally, cashew crops are quite low-yielding and still require a fair amount of water (although not as much as almonds), which means it probably isn’t the most eco-friendly option out there.
9. Coconut milk
Here, we are talking about the drink variety rather than canned coconut milk that's added to curries. It is made from coconut cream and water, and is more diluted than the canned version.
Pros: coconut is not actually a nut, so it's safe for those with a nut allergy. While is contains some saturated fat, it is a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT), which goes straight to the liver where it is used for energy
Cons: it is low in protein and, like almond milk, may contain carrageenan, which can cause digestive issues for some. It is naturally higher in calories due to its higher fat content, which makes buying unsweetened varieties even more important, or you’ll be adding to the calories
Coconut milk is quite low in terms of its environmental impact as it has low water requirements and you don’t have to deforest the trees in order to harvest the coconuts.
Try it in this low-sugar granola one morning.
10. Rice milk
Like hemp milk, rice milk is made by grinding rice grains and then filtering it with water. It is thinner than other milks and can make a versatile alternative in your cooking.
Pros: it is least likely of all milk alternatives to cause an allergic reaction and is low in calories
Cons: it is low in protein but higher in carbohydrates, having been made from grain, so may not be suitable for those with blood sugar imbalances or diabetes. Rice milk typically contains more additives to improve its consistency and is also high in inorganic arsenic, making it unsuitable for young children
Try this green breakfast smoothie made with rice milk
11. Flax milk
Flax milk is made from ground flaxseeds and water. Like hemp, it has a more distinctive taste and is a little thinner in its consistency.
Pros: flax milk, like the seeds, is a good source of alpha linoleic acids (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants that is naturally anti-inflammatory. It is naturally gluten-free and may be suitable for those with a nut allergy
Cons: Flax milk tends to contain more thickeners and preservatives to improve its texture and shelf-life. It doesn’t contain any protein, but you can buy some varieties with added protein
This is a newer milk to the market and it appears to be fairly sustainable, but organic varieties may be best to ensure there has been no use of pesticides during farming.
Try swapping soya milk for flaxseed milk in this vegan banana & walnut bread.
12. Tiger nut milk
Tiger nuts are tubers, not nuts. They are about the size of a chickpea, and they get their name from the stripes on their exterior.
Pros: suitable for those with a nut allergy or gluten sensitivity, and usually doesn’t contain extra additives or thickeners
Cons: Tiger nut milk is often blended with rice milk to make it creamier, but, unlike the actual tiger nuts themselves, there is no fibre and very little protein in tiger nut milk
Tiger milk will work in this chia seed pudding recipe.
Like flax milk, this is a relatively new kid on the block, but tiger nuts themselves appear to be sustainable as they don’t require a lot of resources to grow. Other issues may come in around fair trade and ethical sourcing.
13. Walnut milk
A newer nut milk on the market with a more distinctive, nutty flavour than other nut milks, making it good for coffee and baking.
Pros: naturally higher in good fats and protein, which can be helpful for keeping blood sugar levels stable. These good fats are polyunsaturated and ALA, which offer several health benefits and may be neuroprotective
Cons: walnut milk often contains added sugars and is not suitable for those with a nut allergy
Walnuts, like almonds, often come from California, which brings with it some sustainability issues around water.
14. Quinoa milk
Quinoa milk is made by soaking and filtering quinoa, then mixing with water.
Pros: quinoa milk is often gluten-free and suitable for coeliacs (check individual brands for any added ingredients), is higher in protein than other plant-based milks and contains no fat
Cons: it's not as widely available in the UK as other cow's milk alternatives
Boost the protein content of this cardamom & peach quinoa porridge by using quinoa milk.
There has been a surge in popularity of quinoa and quinoa-based products in the last decade, which did start to have an impact on certain regions that harvest this crop. Therefore, sustainability is a bigger concern here than its impact on global warming, which is relatively low.
15. Chia seed milk
Made from chia seeds, chia seed milk can be used in drinks and cooking.
Pros: it contains all-important omega-3 fatty acids and MCT, as well as protein. It's also low in carbohydrates
Cons: some brands add protein powders to the milk for texture and consistency, and it can often be loaded with additives and sweeteners, so check the label
Chia seeds are adaptable and can grow in low-quality soils with little strain on resources, making it environmentally sound.
Get extra health benefits by subbing in chia seed milk for this turmeric latte.
16. Macadamia milk
Made with macadamia nuts, this is a creamy, slightly nutty milk that's quite new on the market.
Pros: it is low in calories and gluten-free, contains a little protein and is higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats
Cons: macadamia milk is often mixed with protein powder to add thickness, and usually has added sugars unless you can find an unsweetened variety
Macadamia trees have the ability to adapt to climate change, and can optimise water as well as use the carbon present in the environment, making them drought-resistant. It's probably one of the more sustainable nuts around.
Try swapping macadamia milk into this gorgeous vegan truffle recipe.
If you are concerned about getting enough calcium from a plant-based diet, read this guide to find out more.
17. A2 milk
Casein is a group of milk proteins, of which beta-casein is one type. Regular cow’s milk contains both A1 beta-casein and A2 beta-casein; A2 milk is a cow’s milk containing just A2 beta-casein. A2 milk comes from certain breeds that only contain the A2 protein.
Pros: it is supposed to be easier on digestion and may help prevent stomach discomfort. It may also be suitable for those who are lactose intolerant or sensitive. As it is still a cow’s milk, it is a great source of natural calcium and protein, and contains a good mix of vitamins and minerals
Cons: there is not enough independent research at the moment to support whether it has an impact on digestion or not, so it may not be suitable for everyone who is lactose intolerant or struggles to digest cow's milk
Cow’s milk does have a bigger footprint when it comes to the environment, whether it is a regular cow or an A2 cow.
18. Goat’s milk
Goat’s milk is nutritionally closest to cow’s milk, but has a more earthy flavour.
Pros: anecdotally, some people report being able to digest goat's milk more easily than cow’s milk, as it is lower in the A1 casein found in cow’s milk as well as lactose, which can cause digestive issues in some. Goat’s milk is an excellent source of calcium and protein and is lower in cholesterol than cow’s milk. It also contains a natural prebiotic called oligosaccharides. Prebiotics help support a healthy gut microbiome
Cons: goat’s milk is not recommended for anyone with a cow’s milk allergy or those who are lactose intolerant. The prebiotics found in goat’s milk may not be suitable for some and can cause digestive issues, particularly in those who suffer with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
Goat’s milk is not much better than cow’s milk when it comes to the environment, although goats do require less water and land.
Goat’s milk will work perfectly as a substitute in this baked ratatouille & goat’s cheese recipe.
19. Sheep’s milk
Sheep’s milk has a milder taste than goat’s milk, although it may be a little harder to find in most supermarkets. Local farm shops are more likely to stock sheep’s milk.
Pros: sheep’s milk may be even more gentle on the stomach than cow's or goat's milk, and may be tolerated by those with lactose intolerance, although this is anecdotal and therefore down to the individual. This may be due to the fact that sheep’s milk contains smaller fat molecules, which are easier to digest. It too is a good source of calcium and protein, and is naturally higher in vitamin E and B vitamins. Sheep’s milk also contains twice the amount of healthy fats (mon0 and polyunsaturated fats) compared to cow’s milk
Cons: it is not suitable for anyone with a milk allergy and may not suit everyone who is lactose intolerant. As sheep’s milk is higher in fats, it is therefore higher in calories
Sheep’s milk appears to have around 30%-50% less impact on the environment than cow’s milk, and can easily be subbed into a recipe like this rice pudding for extra creaminess.
20. Camel milk
Camel milk has long been part of nomadic cultures' diets, and is becoming more widely available in the UK. It's just as versatile as other animal milks.
Pros: camel milk is a good source of protein and is lower in saturated fats and lactose, making it a possible option for those who are lactose intolerant. It also contains more vitamins and calcium than cow’s milk. Some research also suggests that camel milk may be suitable for those with diabetes, as it helps manage blood sugar levels
Cons: it is more expensive than other animal milks and, if buying camel milk, make sure that it is pasteurised, as it can contain harmful bacteria if consumed unpasteurised
As camels are not native to western countries, there is some ethical concern about camel farms that are bringing camels into environments where they are not best suited.
21. Buffalo milk
Buffalo are the second-largest producers of milk in the world after cows, and the milk mainly comes from water buffalo.
Pros: it has a high protein content and a much higher fat content than cow’s milk, giving it a richer flavour and taste. It is a good source of vitamins and minerals and contains less cholesterol but more calcium than cow’s milk
Cons: it is hard to find and is more expensive than other animal milks, and due to its higher fat content it is higher in calories too
Like cow’s milk, buffalo milk has a higher footprint on the environment as a result of the land required and amount of greenhouse gas generated.
22. Lacto-free milk
Lacto-free milk is still a dairy product, but it contains lactase, an enzyme that helps break down lactose, a sugar found in regular milk that gives it a slightly sweeter taste.
Pros: it may be suitable for those who have a lactose intolerance and it has the same taste and texture as regular cow’s milk, as well as the same nutritional status in terms of protein, calcium and other vitamins and minerals
Cons: not everyone who is lactose intolerant may be able to consume lacto-free milk, and it must be avoided if you have a milk allergy
Environmentally, lacto-free milk is the same as regular milk, so not the greenest option.
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This article was published on 28 October 2021.
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