Let me first say that if you can comfortably consume cow’s milk, then you should. It’s rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals—and the non-fat version eliminates the downside of saturated fats. But cow’s milk isn’t for everyone. People avoid it for a variety of reasons. So if you’re one of the millions seeking alternatives, I’m happy to report that there are plenty of options available, each with its own contribution to make toward your continued health and well-being.
Probably the most well-known and widely-used “other milk,” soy milk offers a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk, with a good amount of protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D. It contains no lactose, making it safe for those suffering from that intolerance; and its lack of cholesterol, minimal fat, and high protein content make it a heart-healthy choice. Though there is much research still to be done, a number of studies have indicated a correlation between soy consumption and cancer prevention.
If you’re trying soy milk for the first time, be aware that—while much less prevalent than milk allergies—soy allergies do exist, so it’s important to pay attention to any symptoms you may experience.
Developed in the 1990s, almond milk is made from a blend of nuts and water that produces a beverage that’s more about what’s not there than what is. Like soy milk, it lacks cholesterol, saturated fats, and lactose; but unlike soy milk, it contains little protein in its unenriched form. Therefore, it’s best to look for fortified versions that offer increased nutrition and added vitamins and minerals. Also keep in mind that while almond milk is perfect for those who are lactose-intolerant, it’s unsuitable for those with nut allergies.
Much like almond milk, rice milk is free from cholesterol, fats, and lactose, and offers minimal protein. It has two special characteristics though, that make it a desirable choice: It possesses an inherent sweetness that obviates the need for added sugars; and allergic reactions to rice are extremely rare, making it one of the safest choices for those who tend to be sensitive to different foods.
A recent and somewhat esoteric addition to the alternate milk canon, this derivative of hemp seeds is especially useful for those who may have allergies to soy, milk, nuts, or grains. It has a decent amount of protein, along with fatty acids, vitamins, and calcium. Its taste and texture are unique and may take a little getting used to, but its benefits are evident.
This sweet, thick milk made from the grated meat of fresh coconut falls into a slightly different category than other “alternative” milks. You might not want to pour it over your cereal or drink it with a slice of pie. But as a substitute for cream in a sauce, or as an ingredient in curry, it has no equal. Coconut milk offers a little protein, fiber, and a generous array of minerals, especially iron.
The downside is a high saturated fat content, so use it sparingly and look for reduced-fat versions. Still, the specific fat here differs from that in animal products, and some research has shown it to have certain benefits in terms of promoting healthy weight maintenance without raising cholesterol levels.
Thai Green Curry Sauce
Use this zesty sauce to add spicy goodness to grilled chicken breasts, roast salmon, or a slab of seared tofu (shown below). If you like it spicy, add up to 2 tsp. of Thai green curry paste.
1 cup reduced-fat organic coconut milk
1 Tbs. nam pla (Asian fish sauce)*
1/2 tsp. Thai green curry paste, or to taste*
1 tsp. tamari soy sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 fresh kaffir lime leaf*, crushed, or 1/2 tsp. grated lime zest
Combine all ingredients in medium saucepan. Whisk to combine, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer uncovered, whisking occasionally until mixture is reduced by almost half, about 15 minutes. Keep warm, and serve over chosen protein, about 2 Tbs. per serving.
PER SERVING: 33 cal; <1g pro; 3g total fat (2g sat fat); 1g carb; 0mg chol; 196mg sod; <1g fiber; <1g sugars
*Nam pla and green curry paste can be found at Asian markets or health food stores. Kaffir lime leaves are usually only available at Asian markets—or try growing a little kaffir lime tree in a pot in your back yard!
Carrot Almond Soup
This simple soup is perfect for those who need to avoid dairy but still crave a creamy sweet start to dinner.
5 large organic carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 quart organic vegetable broth
1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
White part of 2 scallions, chopped
1 cup plain almond milk
Salt and white pepper, to taste
PER SERVING: 69 cal; 1g pro; 1g total fat (<1g sat fat); 14g carb; 0mg chol; 240mg sod; 4g fiber; 8g sugars
Many commercially available milk substitutes are made more palatable to the general public with the addition of less-than-healthy additives, especially sugars. Read the labels, avoid unnecessary ingredients, and choose unsweetened versions whenever possible.
Neil Zevnik is a private chef based in Los Angeles who’s devoted to the proposition that “healthy” doesn’t have to mean “ho-hum.” He also writes for the Huffington Post and has his own website, neilzevnik.com.