Fitness & Nutrition

The Changing Landscape of Nondairy

As dairy sales fall, new nondairy milks find a following and offer nutritional pros and cons
TIMEJanuary 12, 2022

You’ve probably noticed it when you’re in the grocery store—nondairy milks are booming. They aren’t just gaining shelf space in the refrigerated section next to dairy milk, they’re also expanding in the dry goods section next to breakfast cereals. And the choices are growing, too.

Today’s nondairy milks include the familiar soy, rice, oat, coconut, and almond milks, as well as milks made from peas, hemp, flax, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachio nuts, walnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, lupin beans, quinoa, garbanzo beans, sesame seeds, tapioca starch, and even potatoes.

What explains the popularity? According to the Cleveland Clinic, many are embracing nondairy milks because of milk allergies, lactose intolerance, vegan lifestyles, and concerns about “milk’s potential health risks of added antibiotics and hormones.” Others eschew dairy milk because of ethical concerns about the dairy industry’s treatment of animals and its impact on the environment, the Food Institute says. Of course, some just prefer the taste of nondairy milks.

COVID-19 may also have accelerated the switch to nondairy milk because of supply issues in procuring dairy milk or the longer shelf life of many nondairy milks, many of which don’t need to be refrigerated until opened. One factor that doesn’t seem to be at play in the boom is price; almost all nondairy milks are pricier than dairy milk, though you can also make some of them at home with a blender and a cheesecloth or nut milk bag.

Nor do calories seem a factor, since nondairy milks can represent both more and fewer calories than dairy milk.

A Sea Change in Beverage Choices

Despite the entertaining “Got Milk” ads, which often feature celebrities, milk sales have been nosediving for years; the latest sales report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that total conventional milk products are down 4.7 percent over the previous year. Dairy Business, a dairy industry magazine, reports that sales bumped slightly during stay-at-home orders during the pandemic but are “again falling into the long-term declining trends.” Conversely, nondairy milks now represent a nearly $3 billion-dollar-a-year industry.

Nondairy milks aren’t just the choice of young urban dwellers; popularity is growing in non-urban settings and among older people, too, reports the marketing site Morning Consult.

“Interest continues to move inland from the urban coasts,” says Keri Szejda, a food technology scientist. She said people in rural areas “have heard of and tried dairy alternatives.” According to CNN, nondairy milks have made such inroads that as many as half of Americans now drink them, including 54 percent of children under 18 and 68 percent of parents.

In fact, the nondairy milk craze is gaining so much steam—and conventional milk sales are cooling so sharply—that the nation’s largest milk producer, Dean Foods, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019 blaming “accelerated decline in the conventional white milk category.”

Originally, the dairy industry tried to fight the nondairy milk trend with lawsuits that claimed the term “milk” can legally only refer to dairy milk (similar to the fight over the use of the term “meat”). But after unsuccessful lawsuits, the industry is now characterizing nondairy milks as “imposters” while some dairies are adding nondairy milks to their product lines, just as some meat producers and burger chains have added plant-based meats.

Downsides of Nondairy Milks

In general, the longer a nondairy milk has been available—think soy, rice, almond, and coconut—the more well-known and popular it is. That also means people are looking more closely at any nutritional or environmental consequences.

For example, soy milk has been widely seen as the closest replacement to dairy milk because of its protein content. Dairy offers 8 grams of protein per cup while soy offers 7 to 12 grams per cup. But the effect of soy’s significant isoflavones, plant estrogens known as phytoestrogens, continues to be a subject of controversy.

According to research published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology in 2010, soy phytoestrogens have been linked to a “lowered risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, breast cancer, and menopausal symptoms … but many are also considered endocrine disruptors, indicating that they have the potential to cause adverse health effects as well.” There have been several lawsuits about the negative effects of soy filed by U.S. prisoners whose food often has a high soy content because prisons find it more economical.

Another environmental issue is raised with the equally popular almond milk. According to the website Edible Brooklyn, almonds are “grown in California, where serious drought conditions are an ongoing issue. A recent study calculated the total water footprint for one California almond averages 3.2 gallons.” Moreover, the site states, the “process of turning the nuts into milk eliminates most of the nutrients,” so the water use isn’t necessarily justified in terms of the food value produced.

Still, as the website Statista points out, almond milk’s water toll is only 60 percent of that of dairy milk; one liter of cow’s milk (about a quarter gallon) uses 165.9 gallons in production. Also, water use is only one factor determining the environmental toll. Transportation—how far a nondairy milk travels to its consumers—is also a factor.

Coconut milk has also become a popular nondairy beverage, but there are some possible clouds over it as well. Environmentally, coconut crops, found in tropical areas, encroach on wildlife habitat, and coconut pickers in poorer countries are often exploited and paid less than a dollar a day.

Nutritionally, unlike almost all other nondairy milks, coconut contains a heavy dose of saturated fat that is plentiful in beef, milk, butter, and margarine, and one reason many people avoid dairy milks. Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano says coconut milk’s saturated fat should be kept “at a minimum if heart health is a concern.”  

Protein and Other Nutrients

Many nondairy milks are fortified with ingredients found in dairy milk such as calcium, vitamin B12, and potassium, but if you’re seeking high protein content, prepare to be disappointed. Soy milk may rival dairy milk’s 8 grams of protein, but few other nondairy milks come close. For example, flax milk contains zero protein per cup; coconut milk has only 0.5 grams of protein per cup, and rice milk only 0.7 grams of protein per cup.

While you would think nut milks such as almond, cashew, hazelnut, walnuts, or macadamia would have high protein since the nuts themselves clearly do, their protein content isn’t impressive. In fact, the highest protein content found in the nut milks commonly found in grocery stores is in peanut milk, which has 6 grams of protein per cup.

According to Healthline, a cup of hazelnut or walnut milk offers a disappointing 3 grams of protein, macadamia nut and almond milk only 1 gram of protein, and cashew milk less than 1 gram of protein. Pecan milk also only offers 3 grams of protein.

Pistachio milk offers 6 grams of protein per cup, sesame seed milk 6.7 grams of protein per cup, and milk made from lupin beans, a legume, may offer an amazing 26 grams of protein per cup, but these milks have yet to earn an established place on grocery store shelves.

Of course, protein isn’t the only valuable nutrient found in nondairy milks. Though low in protein, cashew milk, for example, offers significant iron and fiber. Oat milk, also not a protein giant, offers beta-glucan, a soluble fiber with possible heart health benefits. “Beta glucan forms a gel-like substance within your gut that can bind to cholesterol and reduce its absorption. This may help lower blood cholesterol levels, especially levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which have been linked to heart disease,” says Healthline.

Finally, the benefits of pea and hemp milks are getting new attention. Pea milk not only has about 7 grams of protein per cup, it contains desirable omega-3 fatty acids that neutralize inflammation, says CHI health.  Omega-3 fats reduce triglycerides and slow the buildup of plaque, says the government-affiliated Medline Plus website.

Hemp milk also offers omega-3 fats as well as 4 grams of protein, Vitamins A, D, and B12, iron, phosphorus, and zinc according to WebMD.

Clearly, the number of nuts and grains that can become nondairy milk is limited only by our imagination. And whether we are seeking a standalone beverage, something to add to our coffee or morning cereal, or a dietary/calorie change, there are many good options.

Martha Rosenberg is a nationally recognized reporter and author whose work has been cited by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Public Library of Science Biology, National Geographic and Wikipedia. Rosenberg’s FDA expose, Born with a Junk Food Deficiency, was widely praised and established her as a prominent investigative journalist. She has lectured widely at universities throughout the United States and resides in Chicago.