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Dairy Substitutes and How to Use Them

Are you puzzled by all the different milk and dairy substitutes out there? When do you use them, and why do you need them anyway? Here we break down six common dairy substitutes: almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, oat milk, pea milk, and soy milk.

Glass of milk splashing out of glass on black background

Dairy: the good, the bad, the ugly

What is ‘milk’? There’s some out there that argue that these dairy alternatives can’t be called milk. Regardless of where you stand, these ‘milk’ substitutes are in the dairy aisle to stay, it seems, at least for now.

 By definition, dairy is any product made from the milk of a mammal.

Cow’s milk is the number three most produced food product in America – outproduced only by two foods grown largely to feed the dairy cows that make the milk: corn and soybeans.

We’ll talk about the cows in a minute – I’ll need another post to explain how angry the corn and soybeans make me.

But lets get back to how we consume dairy. Did you know that humans are the only species that consumes milk after infancy? We’re also the only mammals that drink another mammals milk.

A majority 65% of humans worldwide have a reduced ability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, beyond infancy

Nutritionally speaking, dairy does bring protein But it also brings lots of fat, and nearly all of its carbohydrates come from sugar—all of it in the form of lactose, which many people can’t digest.

Ethics: dairy cows and the farms they live on

Now, remember how we were talking about the corn and the soy produced to feed the milk cows?

Many dairies have very low animal welfare standards. Many cows are never allowed outdoors to graze, but are held in cramped stalls on factory farms.

Not to worry, though – they live a short life indoors. Although they are able to live up to 20 years, they’re most often slaughtered before they’re 5. Younger cows have much higher milk production than older ones.

If you’re looking for more information For detailed information about the dairy industry’s cruel farming practices, see Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals.

Milk Alternatives

So, dairy isn’t great for our bodies, and it’s not really great for the cows either. Does that mean we have to live a life without milk, creamer, ice cream, whipped cream, cheese, and all the other delicious dairy products?

Not necessarily. There’s an entire market of dairy substitutes out there, and there’s lots of ways to make your own too. Let’s take a look at milk alternatives first.

Almond milk

Glass bottle full of almond milk sitting on counter surrounded by almonds

Almond milk is a dairy alternative that is most commonly used in place of cow’s milk.

It’s a popular dairy substitute and can be found in most grocery stores right next to the regular milks and creamers.

This is my personal favorite – when we weaned my son off of breastmilk, we used almond milk instead of cows milk. He still drinks it to this day.

We use it in smoothies, overnight oats, and anyplace else we might have otherwise used cow’s milk.

How almond milk is made

Almond milk is made by blending almonds with water and then straining the mixture to remove the solids. 

It has a pleasant, nutty flavor and a creamy texture similar to that of regular milk. For this reason, it is a popular choice for people following a vegan diet and those who are allergic or intolerant to dairy.

Why almond milk is a healthier alternative

A good brand of almond milk — one that doesn’t contain those added sugars and chemicals — is great for controlling blood sugar, since the carbohydrate content is low. 

Almond milk is also rich in good fats, which promote a healthy heart and keep you feeling full.

I do use store bought, but I make sure it’s unsweetened original. If you’re feeling ambitious and want to make your own, Minimalist Baker has a great easy almond milk recipe here.

Coconut milk

Glass jar of coconut milk surrounded by broken pieces of coconut

How coconut milk is made

Coconut flesh (the white part) is grated and soaked in hot water. The coconut cream rises to the top and is skimmed off.

The remaining liquid is then squeezed through a cheesecloth to extract the white liquid that you know as coconut milk. By repeating this process, the coconut milk becomes thinner.

There are multiple ways to make coconut milk, or rather, multiple coconut products you can make it from. If you’re curious to learn about them, there’s a great post here on 4 Ways to Make Coconut Milk.

Coconut milk vs. coconut cream

Coconut milk is most commonly purchased in a can. ( I buy mine from Thrive Market here. If you’re not familiar with Thrive Market and want to learn more, you can check out this post!)

Canned coconut milk is a combination of coconut cream and coconut water. If you shake the can, the two will combine, and you’ll have a thick, creamy liquid when you open it up.

Disclaimer: sometimes the coconut cream will be hardened a bit; just take a whisk or a fork and stick in the can and stir it a bit until it smooths out.

Coconut cream also comes in a can, but a much smaller one. This is just the thick, fatty cream from the coconut milk, divided so you don’t have to do it yourself.

Coconut cream is most often used to thicken recipes or add a creamy consistency to sauces. It can also be used as a whipped cream alternative – I use it here in my Apple Crisp recipe!

DIY coconut cream

Coconut cream can also just be skimmed from a can of coconut milk, it just takes a bit of pre-planning.

Take your can of coconut milk and put it upside down in the fridge overnight. The next day, turn the can right side up, open it, and the coconut cream will have separated from the water.

You can skim the cream off and save the water for another use (I like to put it in a smoothie!)

Why coconut milk is a healthier alternative

Coconut milk helps increase HDL levels (good cholesterol) and decrease LDL levels (bad cholesterol). It also improves blood pressure, and helps prevent cardiac arrhythmia due to its potassium content.

Coconut milk is higher in saturated fat content, so it can pack a much larger punch of calories and fat than almond milk. If you’re watching your fat intake, this might not be your first choice.

My favorite use for coconut milk is make creamy soups like my Curried Sweet Potato Soup and my Creamy Broccoli Soup!

Oat milk

How oat milk is made

Oat milk is simply rolled oats and water blended together then strained to leave the pulp behind. The result is easy, creamy, DIY oat milk!

I don’t use or make oat milk regularly personally, so I wanted to learn a bit about what type of oats are best to use. From what I found, you want to go with rolled oats.

Steel cut oats are less processed, and quick cook oats are over processed. The results are a less creamy milk and a slimier milk, respectively.

Neither of those sounds delicious, so I would recommend sticking with the rolled oats for this one.

Here’s how to make oat milk at home.

Why oat milk is a healthier alternative

Oat milk is high in vitamins like B12 and a good source of fiber.

Oat milk is reported to have one of the most satisfying flavors, with a creamy texture that replicates the richness of cow’s milk.

Just as with any store bought, processed product – read your labels! While fortification is typically ok (this is the addition of vitamins and minerals), you want to watch out for additives, chemicals, and sugars.

Pea milk

Admittedly, when I hear ‘pea milk’ I want to giggle. But once we get past the immature 12-year old jokes, pea milk actually has a leg to stand on.

The Washington Post did a great article on it here.

How pea milk is made

To make pea milk, it starts with harvesting yellow peas and milling them into flour.

That flour is then processed, separating the pea protein from the fiber and starch.

The pea protein is further purified and blended together with water and other ingredients, including sunflower oil and sea salt, as well as vitamins like B12.

I don’t know about you, but that’s one I’m going to leave to the professionals and not try to make at home.

Why pea milk is a healthier alternative

Where almond, coconut and oat milk lack in protein, pea milk does not.

Often used in plant based protein powders, it’s not really a surprise that we should see peas make an appearance on the milk front.

At 8 grams of protein per cup, it’s got as much protein as cow’s milk, without the lactose. And it’s not even green! 😅

Soy milk

Originating as a broth in China around the fifth century, soy milk has become a staple around the world due to its similar appearance, taste, mouthfeel and nutrition to animal milk.

The dangers of soy

I know there are a lot of people out there that still consume soy and tofu. I am not one of them. There are many reasons not to consume soy in any form.

In addition to being a major hormone disruptor (I have PCOS and don’t need any additional hormone disruption than I already have), I have a lot of issues with how soy is being produced.

Soy is grown in mass quantities and fed to the dairy cows. The plants are produced by Monsanto and are laden with pesticides and are full of GMOs.

Did you know that Monsanto sues any farmers whose plants get cross-polinated with Monsanto’s GMOs?

For real. If you’re a farmer, and some of Monsanto’s seed gets caught in the wind and flies onto your farm – they’ll sue you.

Back to the soy. When it’s fed to the dairy cows, because it’s full of such junk, they often get sick from it.

So – if you think you’re avoiding the dairy industry by drinking soy milk – think again.

Oh, also, it can cause cancer. End rant.

How soy milk is made

Soy milk is made by soaking and grinding soybeans, boiling the mixture, and then filtering.

It is a stable emulsion of oil, water, and protein.

Why soy milk might be a healthier alternative

Well, honestly, other than being dairy free, soy milk isn’t one I recommend. It’s better than cow’s milk, but I’d reach for all other dairy free milks before I’d reach for this one.

Many people still use it, however, I think as more and more people learn about the dangers of it, we will see this phase out and other dairy substitutes take its place.

Hemp milk

If you’re avoiding dairy, have nut allergies, and don’t want to drink soy, hemp milk might be just the thing for you.

How hemp milk is made

Hemp milk is actually very simple to make, and is made in a similar format to oat milk. The hemp seeds and water are placed in a blender and blended on high until thick and creamy.

The remaining mixture is strained through a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer, leaving behind a creamy liquid.

Why hemp milk is a healthier alternative

Made from the hulled seeds of genetically male hemp plants, hemp milk offers worthy nutritional benefits.

Like soybeans, hemp seeds are a source of complete proteins with all essential amino acids as well as healthy fats – but without all the hormone disruptors.

Hemp is a sustainable crop, using far less water than almonds, requiring little to no pesticides, and contributing to the health and stability of topsoil.

What’s not to love?

Non-dairy substitutes for common dairy items

While milk is the most common topic when it comes to dairy substitutes, there are plenty of other products out there that use dairy. If you’re going dairy free, you’ll need to know about these alternatives too.

Cheese, yogurt, creamers, ice cream. It seems overwhelming at first, but trust me – consumerism has driven companies to make a product for everything, and this is no exception.

Here are my best recommendations for other dairy substitutes.

Heavy cream: Coconut cream is going to be your best alternative. It’s the thickest and highest in fats, so you’ll get a similar texture to heavy cream.

You will get a slight coconut taste depending on the recipe, so keep that in mind.

Sour cream: You can make cashew sour cream or coconut cream sour cream – the secret is the use of apple cider vinegar.

Buttermilk: Add lemon juice or vinegar to your alternative milk and let sit. Wha-la: buttermilk. This recipe uses soy milk, which we’ve already discussed – but you can use the same ratios with any milk alternative.

Half + half: There are so many dairy free creamer alternatives on the market now! Just watch your added ingredients and your added sugars.

My two favorite options are Califa Farms Better Half or Nutpods.

Butter: Your closest alternative is ghee – this is butter with the milkfats removed, making it dairy free.

That said, it’s still contributing to dairy production from cows, so if that’s a concern for you, you’ll want to stick with either olive oil or vegetable shortening for similar results.

You can read all about the olive oil industry’s messed up ways in my article here, as well as find the best olive oil around, in my opinion.

Whipped cream: You can make your own out of coconut cream, or RediWhip now makes both almond milk and coconut milk cans, so you can stay dairy free but still indulge once in awhile.

Sweetened condensed milk: They make sweetened condensed coconut milk – and it’s actually super clean. It’s most often found in the Asian Foods section in the grocery store.

You can make your own, but it’s just as simple to buy it. It comes in a small can and I use it in my dairy free Chocolate Peanut Butter No Bake Pie!

Ice cream: My favorite is the So Delicious brand cashew milk ice cream. It’s the most similar in texture and taste to cow’s milk ice cream, in my opinion.

Other options exist for both almond milk ice cream as well as coconut milk ice cream – I recently had Whole Foods store brand, 365, almond milk ice cream, and it was very good!

Cheese: There are lots of dairy free cheese alternatives these days. A lot are soy based, but cashew cheese has been making an appearance, and while my husband makes fun of me for eating it, I enjoy it and it still gets melty.

Trader Joe’s even has a store brand cashew cheese as well as almond milk cheese.

Yogurt: This is a huge culprit for added sugars. If you can, purchase plain and add your own ingredients and a touch of honey or maple syrup to sweeten.

There are lots of almond milk and coconut milk yogurts out there. Most are loaded with cane sugar and are not actually healthy.

I prefer to use Forager cashew milk yogurt, plain and unsweetened, and fancy it up myself.

Remember, “dairy free” doesn’t automatically make something healthy!

The first step is the hardest

It can seem daunting to try and cut dairy out of your life entirely. I know, I’ve been there. But honestly, the first step is the hardest.

If you’re not working with an allergy, then just pick one thing to switch. Then start paying attention in the store when you’re shopping. You’ll start seeing dairy substitutes

everywhere – quite often right next to the dairy product you used to buy.

And the longer you stick with it, the more new foods you’ll discover, and the easier it gets.

Keep an eye out for fillers, added sugars, and chemical preservatives in any store bought dairy substitutes, always.

Have a favorite dairy free product we missed? Leave it in the comments!

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