What is nondairy milk? How does it help with lactose intolerance?

Quick Answer
Milk produced from nonanimal sources, such as soy, rice, almond, multigrain, oat, and potato.
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Milk has changed, and for many people, that change is welcome news. According to an article published in American Family Physician, up to 100 percent of Asians and American Indians, 80 percent of black and Latino people, and 15 percent of people of northern European descent have trouble digesting lactose.

Lactose, a milk sugar found in dairy products, is digested in the intestines by an enzyme called lactase. Many people do not produce enough lactase, and the result is a decreased ability to digest lactose known as lactose intolerance, which can result in bloating, gas, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. There are different degrees of lactose intolerance—some people may be able to handle moderate amounts of milk before feeling the effects of too little lactase, while others may only be able to handle a small amount or none at all. Overall, one in four Americans has some degree of lactose intolerance.

Not everyone who avoids cow’s milk is lactose intolerant. In its whole state, milk has both saturated fat and cholesterol. Some people are concerned about the environmental impact and animal abuse associated with milk production. Others, such as Buddhists, have religious convictions or other personal reasons for avoiding cow’s milk.

Requirements and Sources

Nondairy milks are abundant and now found in many supermarkets and other stores. Milk is made from soybeans, rice, nuts, oats, and potato (and combinations thereof) and is available in different flavors, with different fat contents (regular, reduced-fat, low-fat, or no-fat) and with various levels of nutrient fortification. Because of such a wide-ranging selection, one should read the ingredient and nutrition information for help selecting the best products for one’s needs.

Soy milk. Soy milk is the most popular of the nondairy milk beverages. Each soy milk product on the market has its own texture, taste, and consistency, and in general, soy milk products are thicker and creamier than other nondairy milks.

Soybeans are the main ingredient in soy milk, followed by soy protein isolate—a concentrated soybean protein. Some soy milks contain tofu, but most soy milks are made from organic soybeans, although not all are free of genetically engineered beans. Soy milk is available in both liquid and powder forms.

Oat milk. Swedish farmers and scientists invented oat milk through a process called the Oste Process, which uses oat kernels and rapeseed (canola) oil to produce a neutral-tasting, highly stable beverage. The milk is also an excellent substitute for cow’s milk in cooking and baking. Oat milk is low in fat and contains vitamin E, folic acid, amino acids, trace elements, and minerals. The extraction process allows much of the natural fiber to remain in the final product, which makes oat milk “oatmeal in a glass.”

Rice, nut, and potato milks. Rice milk is lighter and sweeter than soy milk. Some people say it tastes closer to cow’s milk than other nondairy choices. Almond milk is the most popular nut milk, although people who make their own often use walnuts, hazelnuts, or cashews, along with almonds. Potato milk is the newest addition to the nondairy case, and it is available in both liquid and powder form. Combination beverages often contain oats, barley, soybeans, and brown rice.

Nutrients. To get enough calcium and other nutrients from nondairy milk, one should buy fortified products. The nutrients most commonly added to nondairy milks are the same ones either added to or found in cow’s milk: calcium, riboflavin, and vitamins C, D, and B12. One should buy brands that contain 20 to 30 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12, which makes them nutritionally similar to cow’s milk. Not all nondairy beverages are fortified, so one should check the labels.

Uses and Applications

According to Robert Oser, a former chef at the world-famous Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson, Arizona, and author of Flavors of the Southwest, nondairy milks not only are great in shakes and on cereal; they can be used for cooking and baking too. The results will depend on the fat content of the milk substitute used and on the brand. Substituting nondairy milk for cow’s milk often can be done one-to-one in a recipe, but experimentation is often recommended. When making gravy, for example, one may need to add more corn starch or other thickeners than the recipe specifies.

Because rice and nut milks are sweeter and lighter than soy milk, they are good for desserts and curries, but less suitable for gravies and most entrees. Oat and potato milks are more neutral and complement soups and main dishes. Soy-based beverages and those containing a high amount of calcium carbonate can curdle at high temperatures, especially if the recipe uses acidic foods such as oranges or tomatoes.


American Dietetic Association. “Calcium Consumption Versus Lactose Intolerance.” Available at http://www.eatright.org.

_______. “Lactose Intolerance: A Matter of Degree.” Available at http://www.eatright.org.

Go Dairy Free. http://www.godairyfree.org.

Goldberg, J. P., and S. C. Folta. “Milk: Can a ‘Good’ Food Be So Bad?” Pediatrics 110, no. 4 (2002): 826-832.

Swagerty, D. L., A. D. Walling, and R. M. Klein. “Lactose Intolerance.” American Family Physician 65, no. 9 (2002). Available at http://www.aafp.org.

Vegetarian Resource Group. http://www.vrg.org.