Almond, cashew, or coconut? No, we’re not talking about potential toppings for your fro-yo. When we steer our carts to the milk section at the grocery store, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed and confused by the countless creamy, white options. Selecting a carton is now more complicated than choosing between skim, full-fat, and two percent. In addition to these dairy varieties produced by cows, dairy-free milks derived from soy, oat, hemp, and more exist. Even Starbucks and other coffee chains have almond and coconut milk for the dairy-wary.
So, how’s a gal to pick which milk to blend her smoothie with or add to her iced coffee? We interviewed Stefanie Adler, a certified nutrition consultant, holistic chef, and founder of San Francisco-based Bright Bean Health, to get the DL on dairy-free milks.
Stefanie: There has been a growing awareness about food sensitivities and allergies, as well as animal welfare practices. Since dairy is a very common food sensitivity and many people would prefer to not support conventional dairy production practices, there has been a rise in popularity of non-dairy milks.
Stefanie: Dairy can be a food that influences our hormones and is often associated with many skin conditions and other issues in the body. Even individuals who find they can eat fermented dairy products like cheese and yogurt often have side effects from dairy milk. Since dairy is a common food sensitivity, switching to a non-dairy alternative can clear up acne, eczema, or other skin problems. It may even help with brain fog for some.
Additionally, non-dairy milks have a different nutritional profile than dairy milk which can provide a diversity of nutrients. Non-dairy milks can also add flavor without needing to artificially flavor a product. For example, hazelnut milk makes a wonderful natural, seasonal coffee creamer! Why use an artificially-flavored hazelnut creamer when you have actual hazelnut milk?
Stefanie: Ultimately, it depends on the person and what their dietary and nutritional needs and preferences are. But the three I recommend are coconut milk, almond milk, and hemp milk.
Coconut milk is low allergen, thick and creamy, and high in lauric fatty acid. When lauric acid is digested, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Coconut milk also contains natural electrolytes and many other nutrients, like magnesium, manganese, iron, potassium, and phosphorus that support muscles and brain health. Coconut milk improves digestion by lining the gut with electrolytes and healthy fats, helping symptoms caused by IBS.
Almond milk contains high amounts of vitamin E and D. Vitamin E protects skin from aging, inflammation, and sun damage. Studies show it may also contribute to hair growth. Vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium and keep our bones, muscles, and immune system strong. Almond milk also contains magnesium which supports nearly every body process and is considered the “relaxation mineral.”
Hemp milk, which is made from hemp seeds, is known to balance hormones, improve skin health, and support brain health. I also recommend hemp milk because of its high Omega-3 to 6 ratio. Both Omegas are fatty acids important to our diet, but omega 3s produce an anti-inflammatory response in the body while Omega-6s produce an inflammatory reaction. Hemp milk has more Omega-3s than Omega-6s, which allows you to consume these beneficial nutrients while keeping inflammation low. Additionally, hemp milk is rich in zinc, which is vital for a strong immune system, healing wounds, learning and memory capabilities, and fertility. Did you know that hemp is also a complete plant protein that contains all 20 amino acids?
Stefanie: Coconut is the most heat stable and the creamiest, therefore the best for cooking and baking. It’s great for making soups extra creamy, using in curries, or making non-dairy ranch dressing. A combination of almond and coconut milk can often be good for baking. Hemp and almond milk are my go-to favorites for coffee, to use as a milk substitute for granola, in smoothies, or to simply have a glass of on their own. Though, sometimes an iced coffee with coconut milk is super decadent.
Stefanie: Making coconut, almond, or hemp milk at home is actually really fun and simple. Check out this overview from Minimalist Baker if you’re interested in doing this.
Coconut milk is best from the can. Look for cans with the fewest ingredients possible listed on the back, usually just coconut, filtered water, and sometimes guar gum which is a natural preservative. Choose full-fat, organic, and BPA-free, too. The best almond and hemp milks will have two ingredients: almonds or hemp seeds and filtered water.
I recommend buying refrigerated almond, hemp, and coconut milk. This means it is less likely to have stabilizing preservatives, which can be tough on the digestive system. Check the ingredients for carrageen, a known carcinogen that is sneaking its way into our food and should be avoided. Try to steer clear from milks that are fortified with nutrients—good dairy-free milks will be filled with nutrients already. The nutrients that are added in aren’t easy for our body to use and absorb. Last but not least, always look for unsweetened non-dairy milks. If you want to add sweetener, doing it at home will allow you control the type of sweetener and amount you use. Coconut, almond, and hemp milk all help to stabilize blood sugar as long as they aren’t laced with added sweeteners.