“The food you eat can be the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.” – Ann Wigmore
When it comes to selecting the “best” alternative to dairy milk, it somewhat depends on your intended use for the milk. Different milk alternatives work well for different purposes, as I mention below. Some of these alternatives are thin, some are thicker, some have nutty or earthy flavors, while others are sweeter and lighter tasting. Unfortunately, I neglected to take note of the cost of each of these, though I recall them all being around $4 per 64-oz container.
One important nutritional detail is that, for someone who is avoiding dairy for one reason or another, it can be much more difficult to get in daily recommendations of calcium and vitamin D, since those are found in the highest concentrations in dairy milk (naturally and fortified, respectively). Each of the milk alternatives I tried has been fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A.
The second thing to watch for when selecting a dairy alternative are added sugars. These alternative milks frequently come flavored (vanilla or chocolate) and even the “original” versions are often sweetened. I tried to go with unsweetened options whenever I could to avoid added sugar.
- Trader Joe’s Rice Drink
For drinking, this was my favorite. Even unsweetened (10 g sugar per serving), it has a semi-sweet flavor and does have a mild rice taste (which I loved!). This “milk” is more watery and less thick than others like soy or cashew. I suspect that it would not work well in cream-like sauces or soups as it is probably too thin. Nutritionally, I don’t really have any complaints. It is made from milled brown rice, but don’t go looking for the fiber benefits of brown rice here — it’s just for the flavor.
In a nutshell: Tasty for drinking, nutritionally sound (watch for added sugars in other brands though). Probably too watery for recipes needing a creamier option.
2. Pacific Hemp Non-Dairy Beverage
This was my second favorite milk alternative for drinking, but that is likely because I forgot to specify to my husband to pick up unsweetened hemp milk. This particular product is sweetened with brown rice syrup, bringing the total grams of sugar content to 14 per serving, which is slightly higher than the amount of natural sugar found in dairy milk (12 grams). It has significantly less protein than dairy milk. The flavor of hemp milk reminded me a lot of cream of wheat, believe it or not, and not in a bad way. This milk is about the consistency of fat-free dairy milk and would probably work fine in any recipe using regular milk.
In a nutshell: A unique, earthy, cream-of-wheat type flavor and a pretty typical dairy-like texture. Watch out for the amount of added sugars.
3. Silk Unsweetened Cashew Milk
The taste of this milk was ehhhhhh….okay. Nothing to write home about, but tolerable. It was definitely thicker than regular dairy milk is and it worked delightfully in this alfredo sauce recipe. It had a very slight flavor of cashew and was just a tad more bitter than regular milk. This would probably be my go-to dairy alternative for cream-based recipes.
Notably, this cashew milk is only 25 calories per serving and no grams of sugar, even natural sugar (since cashews don’t contain carbohydrates). If you’re carb-counting or looking at losing weight, that could be a nice option.
In a nutshell: Great for recipes and tolerable, though not enjoyable for drinking. Very low in calories and contains no sugar.
4. Silk Unsweetened Soy Milk
Welp. I don’t have much good to say here. I was actually looking forward to drinking soy milk because I really enjoy flavored soy milk and the nutty flavor it adds to hot chocolate or pumpkin steamers. Unfortunately that yummy flavor is not the same without the added sugar. Unsweetened soy milk was blech. I used the whole darn carton but mostly in recipes. I drank a couple of glasses but ick.
Texture-wise it is similar to cashew milk in thickness and works nicely in recipes. Nutritionally, it has slightly fewer calories than fat-free dairy milk and quite a bit less sugar. The original version has about the same amount of sugar as dairy milk.
In a nutshell: Not for drinking (at least for me). I might use it in recipes.
In general, most of my dairy-free friends said that they do not try to “replace” dairy so much as just eliminate it and eat other things. Even so, I wanted to test a variety of products to find dairy-free versions of things that I could recommend to my patients/clients. The following are my reviews of the yogurt-like products I tried during my dairy elimination:
- SO Delicious Coconut Yogurt Alternative
This yogurt was actually delicious. The yogurt had excellent flavor, texture, and sweetness. The coconut milk gave it a hint of a coconut flavor but despite my distaste for coconut, it was not overtly offensive. Nutritionally it isn’t great because, like many flavored yogurts, it contains a significant amount of sugar (18 grams) in the form of cane syrup and because of its coconut milk base, it carries more saturated fat than a nonfat dairy yogurt or different plant-based yogurt. It does include probiotics.
In a nutshell: Tasty but high in sugar and expensive. A little higher in saturated fat than I would like.
- Almond Dream Yogurt Alternative
The flavor of this yogurt was not exactly superb, but definitely tolerable. The texture was a bit thin compared to dairy yogurt, but the flavor was alright. I think my ultimate thought about this product was…meh. It has the same amount of sugar as the SO Delicious Coconut Yogurt and has no saturated fat. This yogurt cost $1.79.
In a nutshell: Unremarkable. Tolerable but not worth the price tag. Nutritionally slightly better than coconut yogurt, but still high in sugar.
- Coconut Dream Yogurt Alternative
I came at this yogurt hopeful, because I had really enjoyed the SO Delicious coconut yogurt the week before. What a letdown! This coconut yogurt was very thin, and I apply that description to both the taste and the texture. It had a significant “fake taste” similar to the aftertaste with artificial sweeteners, despite the fact that it doesn’t contain any. Nutritionally, this yogurt is the same as the SO Delicious brand. This was also $1.79.
Summary: Blech. No thanks.
- Silk Soy Yogurt Alternative
This was my least favorite yogurt, but I have to say it was a pretty close tie with the Coconut Dream. The soy yogurt texture was a little gritty but okay. I really did not care for the earthy flavor of soy mixed into the yogurt. I barely got it down, and this darn yogurt cost me $2.49! I guess the good news is that of all of the yogurt alternatives I tried, this one had the least amount of sugar (13 grams) and no saturated fat.
Summary: Nope. Nope. Nope.
As of Wednesday, I completed my 2-week dairy elimination and Thursday marked the first day of my dairy re-introduction. I haven’t been able to write much as I’m in a play (it premiered Thursday!) that has kept me pretty occupied with tech/dress rehearsals.
So generally, after a 2-week elimination of a suspected symptom-causing culprit, it is customary to complete a gradual reintroduction to assess for an increase in symptoms. Thursday, I added in a single dairy-containing food, and Friday I ate two, today three, etc.
Thus far I have noticed no improvement in symptoms since eliminating dairy. In fact, my second week in my throat clearing and phlegm seemed to get worse. That happened to be the week in which I selected rice milk as my beverage of choice and ate rice a handful of times. I suspect that maybe rice might be causing my symptoms. Perhaps I’ll do a rice elimination sometime to check.
I have identified several great products that have actually made dairy-free life not only tolerable but enjoyable! I’ll be posting product reviews soon (after the play is over). Alright, I’m off to break a leg!
My dairy-free friend Valerie made a recommendation for an alfredo sauce recipe from Silk’s website. She came over today and we made it!
It came out deliciously – almost better than my normal dairy-inclusive version! It smelled and tasted just like regular alfredo. We made the pasta with cashew milk and took the liberty of a couple of adjustments. Here’s the modified recipe I made (you can add any kind of meat or fish for protein as well!):
- 16 oz fettuccine
- 3 Tbsp canola oil, divided
- 1/2 sweet onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 Tbsp flour
- 4 Tbsp chicken or vegetable stock
- 2 cups Silk Unsweetened Cashew Milk (or soy milk)
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 2 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1/4 cup Trader Joe’s vegan mozzarella-style shreds
- Fresh chopped parsley for garnish
- Prepare fettuccine according to package directions.
- While fettuccine is cooking, saute chopped onion and garlic over medium heat in 1 Tbsp oil until fragrant and translucent.
- Remove onion and garlic to separate dish and reserve.
- Add remaining oil to pan and stir in flour and stock. Simmer for 2 minutes.
- Stir in cashew milk, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, white pepper, and nutmeg.
- Whisk cornstarch into 1/4 c. cold water and stir into sauce.
- Add vegan cheese and return to simmer. Allow to thicken, stirring constantly.
- Stir in onion and garlic and pour over prepared fettuccine and stir well. Top with chopped parsley for garnish.
Recipe modified from https://silk.com/recipes/fast-easy-fettuccine-alfredo.
This dairy elimination has been a fun experiment! I have a conglomeration of brief thoughts:
- Am I missing dairy? Not exactly. The biggest pain is having to stop before eating anything to think, “does this have any dairy in it at all?” It’s more of a pain than anything
- After asking multiple dairy-free friends for advice and product recommendations I have received the following piece of advice from 5 different people: “don’t expect it to taste like the original…it’s just not going to be the same. You have to take it as it’s own thing or learn to make food without dairy at all.”
- Favorite products so far: rice milk and coconut yogurt.
People who eat dairy-free have been exceptionally helpful along my journey. In fact, at Trader Joe’s I met a new vegan friend who was very informational. He taught me that almond cheeses (which I had almost taken home with me) still contain dairy, just very small amounts. I might have never noticed!
Trying products, finding alternatives, and learning has been fun. My husband and kids have even tried all of the products along with me! The big question – has it improved my symptoms? Not particularly as of yet. But time will tell!
Rather than tracking my calories or my weight throughout this diet I have been using a food and symptom journal to keep track of the effect this food elimination has on my symptoms. The journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I have a simple form that I use, but a notebook and paper work fine.
It helps to keep track of food eaten, symptoms (including severity), and times of each to recognize trends and differences.
A common frustration people experience with food and symptom journals is that sometimes symptoms will occur right after eating a food, sometimes 4 hours later or 10 hours later or even longer depending on the type of symptom and the part of the body that is affected. This makes identifying trends a real challenge. For example, it may seem that the symptom occurs every morning after having cereal for breakfast when it is really the night time peanut butter cookie you’re reacting to.
Identifying these trends is just as much of an art as it is a science. If you’re having trouble identifying the food-related cause of your symptoms, meet with a Registered Dietitian and bring in as many days worth of food and symptom journals as you can. RDs are trained to weed through the confusion and find trends that may be difficult to identify.