Guest Post: Straight From the Cow’s Mouth: Pros and Cons of Milk Alternatives

May 5th, 2011 - filed under: Furthermore » Guest Bloggers

I’m so happy to offer up this great guest post by Bonzai reader Renee. It’s just the sort of informative piece I’d love to write – if only I had more hours in my day! Lucky for us, our awesome community continues to grow and thrive, and our awesome community members are willing to take the time to share what they learn in their own lives. Thanks Renee for doing the sleuthing on the alt milk scene!


Since our childhoods we have been programmed to believe in the necessity of milk. Everyone knows that milk plays a crucial role in any child’s diet, as it not only provides calcium for strong bones, but it also enhances growth. In recent years however, cow’s milk (the milk most of us grew up drinking), has been implicated in many health problems including allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, and skin rashes. Adding to this, animal rights activivists point to the cruelty inherent in industrial farming, claiming that the animals are treated terribly and that the milk can be quite unhealthy.

As I learned these issues, I realized I wanted to give my family a better, healthier, and more humane alternative. But to my amazement, I found that there are more choices in non-dairy milk than I’d ever imagined. In fact, the proliferation of these alternatives has made selecting one more difficult than ever before! Each milk alternative is different in nutrition content, consistency, price, and even the taste. Here are some of the choices that made my top list, with their pros and cons to help us all decide:


Soymilk is made from soybeans and has long been a popular alternative for people who are unable to drink cow’s milk, often due to lactose intolerance.

• Fairly low in fat; low-fat and fat-free options available
• Suitable for low-carb diets
• Least expensive commercial milk alternative and available almost everywhere
• High in protein and contains considerably more fiber than cow’s milk
• May lower cholesterol
• Has more omega-3 fatty acids than 2 percent milk
• Mostly fortified with riboflavin and vitamins A, D and B12
• Has isoflavones, a phytoestrogen that can lower the risk for diseases such as cancers, heart disease, osteoporosis and more

• Soy is a common allergen
• Lacks calcium; most brands are fortified with calcium, but research indicates that this may not be as healthful as naturally occurring calcium
• Studies on the effect of isoflavones and cancer risk are mixed

Almond milk

Almond milk is created by finely grinding almonds, one of the healthiest nuts you can eat, together with water.

• Contains vitamins A, D and E and minerals phosphorus, magnesium, iron and potassium (some of these are fortified)
• Low in calories and carbohydrate; advantageous for those trying to lose weight

• Almonds are costly so the actual amount of almonds used in the milk is small and may not be enough to provide a lot of nutrition
• Almonds are a goitrogenic food; they contain chemicals that can harm the thyroid gland when consumed in large amounts

Rice Milk

Rice milk is processed from brown rice and usually contains rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, or some other natural sweetener.

• Low in cholesterol
• High in essential minerals, including magnesium and selenium, which are proven to boost the immune system
• Hypo-allergenic and a good source of vitamins B, iron, copper and antioxidants (usually fortified)
• Most brands are enriched with as much calcium and vitamins as cow’s milk

• Excessive consumption of rice milk, which is high in carbohydrates, is not safe for diabetics
• Non-fortified rice milk is very low in protein and calcium compared to cow’s milk
• Commercial rice milk can be expensive due to a combination of shipping costs, low demand and substantial subsidies paid to American rice growers
• Availability may be limited to natural and health food stores

Oat milk

Oat Milk is made from oat groats (hulled grain broken into fragments), filtered water, and potentially other grains and beans, such as triticale, barley, brown rice, and soybeans.

• High in fiber
• Cholesterol-free and a good option for anyone on a low cholesterol diet
• Contains vitamin E and folic acid, which are essential to numerous bodily functions
• Rich in phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring chemicals in plants that help fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke

• Difficult to get ahold of, except for in health food shops
• Does not contain any calcium and is rarely available in fortified versions
• Flavored varieties can be high in sugar and may contain gluten which some people cannot tolerate

Hemp Milk

New to the market, hemp milk is made from seeds grown in Canada, where growing hemp is legal.

• Good source of omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids, calcium, and phosphorous, and is commonly fortified with other vitamins and minerals
• Unlike soy protein, hemp protein doesn’t contain high levels of enzyme inhibitors, phytates, which can interfere with the proper assimilation of essential minerals
• Does not contain the oligosaccharides found in soy, which cause flatulence and stomach distress

• Difficult to find in many areas
• Expensive
• Low in protein compared to cow’s milk

If you or your family is vegan, allergic to cow’s milk, lactose intolerant, or simply does not like the taste of cow’s milk, there is no reason to fret. You have a lot of non-dairy milk alternatives! I personally enjoy melon-flavored soymilk, while my kids love the malt variety. My husband, meanwhile, has become somewhat addicted to the light, nutty flavor of plain almond milk.

In choosing milk alternatives, keep in mind these pros and cons and make sure to always check nutritional labels as brands do vary. You may also consider making your own milk at home if costs become a hindrance.


Renee Bedford is a mom and wife who is dedicated to living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

  • Adrienne Audrey

    Great post. I usually drink organic soy milk from Safeway because it is cheaper but I like to try different alt milks from time to time. Almond milk is so delicious. I tried making my own a few times with Sayward’s tutorial a while back. It worked great!

  • Beens

    A really nice comprehensive post! I don’t drink milk/alt-milks often, but I tend to go for either almond milk or coconut milk (made by Kara, I don’t know of any other brands in the UK) and both are delicious and I’m happy to stay ‘weaned’ off the dairy!

    I haven’t made my own nut milk yet, but I have some hazelnuts and I want to make a raw pie crust, so it’s going to happen tomorrow!

  • Monika {windcityvegan}

    Excellent post! I really appreciate the time you took to research the pros and cons of each milk. My daughter prefers rice milk and it’s our own fault for giving it to her in the first place, but we didn’t anticipate that she would prefer it to every. other. liquid. ever. At least it *is* fortified and she is very limited in how much we let her drink, so it isn’t the end of the world.

    I make my own alt milks – I alternate batches of almond-hemp-oat milk with filbert-hemp-oat milk. The pulp is great for granola, raw and baked cookies and crusts, in oatmeal, and just by itself! I also make my own brown rice milk if I need it for a recipe–there are some things that it works better for compared to nut milks. And I purchase coconut milk (by the case, for the 10% discount at WF).

  • Leslie

    What about coconut milk?

  • anon

    Great post. Obviously, not all of these ‘milks’ are created equal. Stores offer a dizzying variety. Can I add “Monsanto” as the last bullet point under soymilk?

  • Olivia Jean

    We’ve been doing Almond milk….but it kinda freaks me out a bit about the Thyroid thing! What to do?

  • christy

    nice post. i know you guys are vegan-centric but raw cow’s milk is awesome and does not have the harmful effects of pasteurized and homogenized milk. it is also from cows that are humanely and lovingly raised and (most often) grass fed.

    and i second the coconut milk, which we make at home using dried shredded coconut

  • Sayward

    Thanks again to Renee, and thanks to everyone for your comments.

    @ Leslie – There are a few varieties that weren’t covered (coconut, hazelnut, potato) – it’s a big market and there’s always new products. Apparently you can get commercial flax milk now, which I’m super curious to try.

    @ anon – Indeed. Organic/non-GMO is essential when purchasing soy products, in my opinion.

    @ Olivia Jean – I can only speak for myself, but I do not worry about almonds. There are more powerful goitrogens out there! My mother had a thyroid condition and I avoid soy mainly for that reason, but for things like almonds and cruciferous veggies I think the benefits outweigh the minimal risks. Do you have a thyroid condition or a family history of them? If not, I wouldn’t let it stress you out, but again that’s just my opinion and you have to do what you’re comfortable with. =)

    @ christy – I’m sure we’ll simply disagree here, but I feel the need to respond to your comment.

    As a mother myself, I fundamentally do not believe that milk can be “humane” or “lovingly” taken. I won’t go into the heartbreaking details involved in producing dairy, but I’ll say that as far as animal cruelty goes, I’d sooner eat meat than drink milk.

    As for the health aspect, it’s just not true that raw milk “does not have the harmful effects of pasteurized and homogenized milk”. Mammalian milk is mammalian milk, and ALL cows milk contains over 40 mammalian hormones that are close enough to our own that they exert influence within our bodies. That’s the most dangerous aspect of dairy in my opinion, but there’s also the highly allergenic lactose and casein, the addictive casomorphins, the carcinogenic animal proteins, and of course the concerns with cholesterol.

    I’m not saying any this to attack you, but I wanted to present the vegan perspective for others that might be reading.

  • christy

    sayward- i respectfully disagree but will continue to read and learn from you as i have for quite some time. thank you.

  • Sayward

    @ christy – Thanks for understanding. I’m glad Bonzai can be a place where we all stay respectful even when we agree to disagree. The majority of my readership is not vegan and I think that’s great. I want everyone to feel comfortable and safe here.

  • erosan

    @christy oooh, please share the technique!

    I do drink alt milk from time to time, although, I have never ever once though about the health effects of each kind… I only do it for the flavour. *blush*

  • christy


    here you go:
    2 cups unsweetened, shredded coconut,4 cups water
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract or cinnamon (optional)
    Soak coconut in water for 1-2 hours (do not discard water)In a Vitamix or blender, combine coconut, water,flavoring and process on highest speed. Strain liquid through a fine mesh paint strainer bag or sprouting bag or coffee filter…I save the solids, dry them out in the oven or dehydrator, then grind them and use for baking (coconut flour!)

    hope you can try it sometime!

  • Alyssa

    i bought hemp milk for the first time a few weeks ago and i think it tastes weird! i don’t know if i’ll give it another try- but it’d be nice to enjoy the flavor more since it is healthy. but its so much more expensive!
    almond milk is definitely my favorite. it even tastes good in cereal. rice milk is good in cereal too. rice milk is actually cheaper around me than almond milk.
    i haven’t tried oat milk though!

    nice article! its good to see it all layed out! espeically since i’ve just been sticking to almond milk lately! (except for my rendezvous with hemp milk)

  • Alyssa

    i bought hemp milk for the first time a few weeks ago and i think it tastes weird! i don’t know if i’ll give it another try- but it’d be nice to enjoy the flavor more since it is healthy. but its so much more expensive!
    almond milk is definitely my favorite. it even tastes good in cereal. rice milk is good in cereal too. rice milk is actually cheaper around me than almond milk.
    i haven’t tried oat milk though!

    nice article! its good to see it all laid out! espeically since i’ve just been sticking to almond milk lately! (except for my rendezvous with hemp milk)

  • Olivia Jean

    thanks Sayward :D I dont think there are any conditions in my family anyway. This is good news because I just found some delicious almond yogurt!

  • erosan

    @Christy: try it sometime? I’ll go try it now! ;)

  • daoine o’

    i use ‘so delicious’ brand coconut milk, but it does have a few more ingredients (other than vitamins and minerals) added than other alt-milks, which may turn some folks off. i use it in my coffee, tea, hot cereals, cooking, baking, everything. i think it’s great.

    and ‘silk’ brand now makes a dark chocolate *almond* milk (not soy, even tho it’s silk) that is to…die…for. it’s just like the chocolate milk you’d buy as a kid, but sooooooooo much better for you.

    it’s also the only alt-milk my other half will use, and he guards it jealously!

  • natashia

    I think it’s interesting that human milk has not come up in this discussion. As a breast feeding mother of a toddler (32 mths) this is something I think a lot about.
    Recently there was quite a strong public response to the ice cream parlour in the UK making breast milk ice cream (which I’m sure everyone knows about), and it’s definitely something to think about. human milk for humans – it is actually the most appropriate milk for us and really shouldn’t be controversial at all. Every other milk-drinking species drinks it’s own milk, why shouldn’t we? (although obviously the adults no longer consume milk). I think the real question is whether we/I can get our heads around this one, and whether we/I would be willing to engage in the sacrifice/effort that would be required to continue to provide breast milk to our families, beyond simply feeding our babies until they wean.

  • Annie

    Health Food stores in my area have started selling (Brown) Rice and Chickpea milk (as in, in one carton). Combined, it’s a complete protein source (all the essential amino acids), it tastes pretty good and it’s not too pricey – as same as the really fancy soy milks.
    I think a combination of altmilks works best, in cooking, coffees/tea, plain drinking and any other use.
    Home made altmilks are awesome, as you make your own mixes suited to your diet/nutritional needs. I find almond a good base and add any of: sunflower seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), flax seeds, sesame seeds, pretty much any other nut (although I’ve had nothing but trouble with walnuts, we’re definately not mates in making milk, oats, brown rice or barley.
    The human milk argument is interesting.
    A few years ago, I read in the paper about a baby who died of malnutrition because the mother was feeding the baby a vegan diet, and in her opinion, her breastmilk was not vegan. What the hell? Each their own, but in my opinion (and the Supreme Court of South Australia), that’s not vegan – it’s neglectful.

  • Annie

    Oh, also, my Mum used to make ‘banana milk’ when my sister and I were little. It’s really just mashed banana watered down and with a pinch of cinamon, but it’s great on cereal.

  • natashia

    annie – more than neglectful, I would also say that that interpretation shows an extreme level of ignorance wrt the biological requirements of infants. I also think it sounds like a misinterpretation of what being vegan is about. I am not a vegan, but my understanding is that it is primarily about avoiding any possible exploitation and cruelty of animals. If the mother in question believed that breast feeding her child was exploiting, or cruel, towards herself (the mother) then she had bigger problems than a misinterpretation of an appropriate vegan diet for a young child. It’s a very sad story

  • Michelle

    This post was great. A post like this comparing the various types of flour would be awesome. Wheat, rice, coconut, oat, spelt, etc.

  • Kristina @ spabettie

    this is an extremely informative post. I cut out dairy when I started following the anti inflammatory diet for health reasons. we have tried many alternatives out there, our favorites being hazelnut, hemp and coconut.

    thanks, Renee for this great post, and thank you to Sayward for sharing!

  • Laura

    We have been drinking local goat milk from a farm our friends own. It is just nice to know exactly where the milk comes from and how it is processed.

  • Courtney

    I have been drinking hemp milk for a couple of months now and I love it! I recently posted my own ‘Ode to Hemp Milk’ on my blog. I really love it!

  • Eva

    Great post!
    It’s interesting how different the availability is in different countries though! In France, it’s hard to find anything fortified with B12 for example (because nearly all plant milks are organic, and therefore adding “unnaturally” produced stuff is not allowed). Not even multivitamin juice seems to have it. Weird! In Germany, soy-rice-milk is very common in most supermarkets, as is oatmilk (there are two really great brands, Oatly (which is swedish) and Kölln.
    And the post just answered my question what to do with the unpeeled (whatever the correct word is…) hemp seeds I still have here. The peeled ones are cool in nearly everything, but the unpeeled ones always have these hard shells that scratch horribly in your throat :D