Dairy vs Non-Dairy Milk: Which is Better for You?


dairy vs non-dairy milk

At one time you had few choices if you didn’t drink dairy milk. These days the number of non-dairy milks available is mind-boggling. When we visited a natural food market recently here are a few of the non-dairy milks they offered:

  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Hemp milk
  • Hazelnut milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Soy milk
  • Rice milk
  • Oat milk

Lots of choices – but when it comes to dairy vs non-dairy milk are there any real health benefits to avoiding dairy?

Is Non-Dairy Milk Better for You?

Let’s start with the good things about dairy milk. It’s an excellent source of calcium and a decent source of protein. Dairy milk is usually fortified with vitamin D, a vitamin most people don’t get enough of. Calcium and vitamin D are important for healthy bones.

Yes, dairy milk supplies calcium and vitamin D, but most non-dairy milks and milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D as well. What bothers us more about dairy milk are the hormones, both ones that are injected into the cow and those naturally produced by the cow.

It’s no secret that cows raised on factory farms are given antibiotics and growth hormones to make them grow larger and heavier. Even cows that are raised organically produce natural hormones that enter their milk supply – and your glass of milk. There’s some question as to whether these hormones stimulate breast and prostate cancer cells and encourage them to grow.

Some research shows a link between dairy consumption and a higher risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer. Dairy milk also contains a hormone called IGF-1, also known as insulin-like growth factor. IGF-1 promotes the growth of some types of cancer cells including breast, prostate and colon .

Then there’s the issue of lactose intolerance. A significant number of adults have problems breaking down lactose, a natural sugar in milk. When lactose intolerant people drink milk or eat dairy products they experience gas, bloating and cramping.

Some people aren’t aware they’re lactose intolerant because they have mild symptoms they attribute to “indigestion.” Try eliminating dairy milk and see if your tummy problems go away.

Downsides of Drinking Non-Dairy Milk

There are some drawbacks to drinking non-dairy milk too. A significant number of non-dairy milks contain a thickening agent called carrageenan. Although carrageenan is derived naturally from seaweed, research in animals show it causes intestinal inflammation in animals and may increase the risk for colon cancer. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, avoid carrageenan in any form.

Fortunately, there are non-dairy milks that don’t contain carrageenan, but you have to read the ingredient list carefully to find them. After reading a few studies on carrageenan we stay away from it. Of course, we made this discovery only AFTER filling our cabinets full of almond milk that contains carrageenan. Now we know better. It’s in other packaged products as well – so read labels carefully.

What’s our go-to milk alternative? We use unsweetened almond milk made by Whole Foods (Whole Foods 365). It’s free of carrageenan. To our delight, we found unsweetened cashew milk without carrageenan at our local co-op. It’s called So Delicious Cashew Milk beverage and has only 35 calories per serving and 1 gram of carbs. We plan on using both.

Dairy vs Non-Dairy Milk: Pros and Cons of Popular Milk Alternatives

If you’re looking for a low-calorie milk alternative, unsweetened almond, cashew or coconut milk are good options. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the high-calorie coconut milk you buy in cans. Canned coconut milk is very high in calories and fat. The coconut milk we’re referring to comes in cardboard packages and is a coconut milk beverage.

Unsweetened versions of all of these milk substitutes are available, and they have only 35 or 40 calories per cup. They’re also significantly lower in total carbs than dairy milk. In terms of taste, we think coconut milk tops almond milk in terms of taste but have recently discovered unsweetened cashew milk tastes good too.

On the downside, almond, cashew and coconut milk only have about a quarter to an eighth the amount of protein that dairy milk does. Rice milk has even less. Hemp milk has respectable amounts of protein but the only non-dairy milk that can match dairy milk in terms of protein is soymilk.

Soymilk is a bit controversial from a health standpoint. Some experts point out that soy contains “anti-nutrients” that block the absorption of minerals and “goitrogens” that may interfere with thyroid function. Although there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest this is a real problem, we stick with almond and cashew milk for this reason.

The only real benefit to hemp milk is the fact that it’s high in omega-3 fats but there are better sources of omega-3 fats including fatty fish like wild-caught salmon. A lot of hemp milks have added sugar too.

Other than the omega-3s there’s not a lot of compelling reasons to drink hemp milk. We also avoid rice and oat milk because they’re higher in calories and carbs and offer no real nutritional benefits that almond, cashew and coconut milk don’t have. Rice milk also has a thin consistency that’s unappealing to us.

What to Look for When Choosing a Non-Dairy Milk Substitute

  • Look for a milk substitute that’s free of added sugar. There are a number of them available. If you like your “milk” a little sweeter, use a natural sweetener like Stevia to sweeten it.
  • Avoid milk alternatives that have carrageenan on the ingredient list.
  • Choose a milk alternative that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D. The form of vitamin D should be vitamin D-3.
  • If you choose soymilk, go organic. Non-organic soy is usually genetically modified. (GMO)
  • Don’t count on non-dairy milk to supply your protein needs. Soymilk is the only one that has a similar amount of protein to cow’s milk.
  • Try a variety of carrageenan-free milk alternatives and decide which one you like best. Most people seem to enjoy coconut and almond milk the most.
  • If you don’t like the taste of milk alternatives as a beverage, try putting one on your morning bowl of oatmeal or use it in recipes where you would normally use milk. You’ll save a significant number of calories.
  • Non-dairy milks often come in plain and vanilla. Some also come in a chocolate flavor.

Another Milk Alternative

If you like to “do it yourself,” you can make your own almond milk using an organic almond milk making kit. We haven’t tried this yet but would love to try it in the future. We like the fact that the milk is free of all additives.

The Bottom Line?

Yes, Dairy milk is high in calcium but it has a number of other drawbacks that make it a less than ideal choice to drink or use on your cereal. Drinking a glass of milk here or there probably won’t harm you but you do have alternatives. Choose them carefully.

Do you use non-dairy milk substitutes? If so, which ones?


Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Oct;74(4):549-54.
Am J Clin Nutr November 2004 vol. 80 no. 5 1353-1357
JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (1998) 90 (12): 911-915.doi: 10.1093/jnci/90.12.911
The Harvard University Gazette. “Growth Factor Raises Cancer Risk”
Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Health Concerns about Dairy Products”

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About Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.
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