Milk Substitutes: Lactose-Free, Soy, Almond, and Rice

Finding a lactose-free replacement for dairy milk can be somewhat baffling. There are so many substitutes already on the market, and it seems as though more are appearing all the time.

What are the pros and cons of each option? Let’s find out.

Lactose-Free Dairy Milk

People with lactose intolerance cannot digest the sugars in milk because they lack the enzyme lactase in their digestive systems. “Lactose-free” milk actually still contains lactose—it’s just that much of the sugar has been filtered out. The rest is rendered digestible by the addition of lactase, sometimes derived from dairy yeasts. The lactase is given some time to break down the lactose into the simple sugars glucose and galactose. After about 24 hours, the process is complete and the milk is ultrapasteurized to deactivate the enzyme.

The major benefit of lactose-free milk is a nutrient profile similar to that of regular milk. This includes complete proteins and plenty of calcium.

The major known drawback of lactose-free milk is that it will not help someone with a milk allergy.

Other characteristics of lactose-free milk include:

  • Slightly sweet but highly processed taste. This is because the added lactase breaks down the lactose into glucose. Unfortunately, ultrapasteurization adds a “cooked” flavor that is unappealing to many. This is the primary reason that lactose-free milk is not particularly popular.
  • Long shelf life. Lactose-free milk is ultrapasteurized, which means it may be able to sit on the shelf for up to two months if kept at an optimal temperature. Note, however, that lactose-free milk is less stable than regular milk if exposed to temperature variations.

Soy Milk

Milk Substitutes: Lactose-Free, Soy, Almond, and Rice

Soy milk is one of the most popular substitutes for regular milk. It is made of a soybean extract derived either from whole soybeans or soy protein isolate and is typically doctored with thickeners such as guar gum to make it palatable to former milk drinkers. It may be sweetened or unsweetened. To make it nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk, it is typically fortified with calcium, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin D.

But even without fortification, soy milk has benefits:

  • Protein content comparable to dairy milk.
  • Essential amino acids—in fact, soy milk is one of the few plant-based milks that contain a complete array of these important nutrients.
  • Phytoestrogens, compounds that mimic estrogen in the body. Associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, hot flashes, and breast cancer recurrence.

There are a few risks associated with soy milk:

  • Some soy milk is made with genetically engineered soya. This problem can easily be avoided by looking for a certified non-GMO product.
  • After long-term consumption, phytoestrogens tend to interfere with normal hormone function.

Other characteristics of soy milk include:

  • A slightly beige color (this varies by brand).
  • A slightly thicker consistency than cow’s milk.
  • Flavor that varies considerably by brand. If you don’t like the taste of your current soy milk, you may be quite satisfied with a different product. Note, however, that most soy milk varieties taste a little off in cooking and baking.

Almond Milk

Milk Substitutes: Lactose-Free, Soy, Almond, and Rice

Almond milk starts with blanched almonds with their skins removed. The almonds are then ground up and mixed with water. The pulp is strained out, and the result is almond milk. It is sometimes sweetened.

Advantages of almond milk include:

  • Low glycemic index if unsweetened. Be aware that most brands of sweetened almond milk can be problematic for those watching their blood sugar.
  • High levels of Vitamin E, an important antioxidant.

Almond milk does have some drawbacks:

  • Few nutrients. Almond milk is much lower in protein than either cow’s milk or soy milk. Unless fortified, it also is largely lacking in vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids because it contains much more water than almond.
  • Phytic acid, a naturally occurring substance that can have some serious side effects if consumed in quantity. Phytic acid binds with calcium, iron, and zinc and prevents their absorption in the body.
  • High calcium oxalate content, which can lead to the development of kidney stones if consumed in large quantities.

Other characteristics of almond milk include:

  • A sightly beige color.
  • A creamy consistency similar to cow’s milk.
  • A slightly nutty flavor. When cooking, this flavor will best complement desserts. Almond milk is also a common choice for adding to coffee, smoothies, and other beverages.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is made out of boiled, milled rice (either white or brown), brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. It may be fortified with calcium and some vitamins to make it more comparable to dairy milk. Thickeners are also added.

The primary benefit of rice milk is that it contains few allergens—no dairy, soy, nuts, or gluten. (But always check the label to be sure it was processed in an allergen-free facility.)

There are a few downsides:

  • Low protein content.
  • High glycemic index. Rice milk is absorbed quickly, causing blood sugar levels to spike.
  • High levels of inorganic arsenic. This is because rice is frequently grown on arsenic-contaminated soils and spends much of its time in a waterlogged state, making any arsenic present readily available in the form of a solution. This situation is further compounded by the fact that rice seems to have an exceptional ability to absorb more arsenic than most crops. Long-term consumption of arsenic is associated with an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. The levels of arsenic present in rice milk are not considered to be problematic for most people, but those who also eat large quantities of rice may find it advisable to consider different grains and milk substitutes.

Other characteristics of rice milk include:

  • A thinner consistency than cow’s milk. Some rice milk can even be watery.
  • A mildly sweet flavor that can be used in most recipes, but especially desserts. Children typically prefer the taste of rice milk to that of any other milk substitute.

A Few Notes

This is just a small sampling of the milk substitutes available today. More will be covered in a future post.

Note that people who are truly lactose-intolerant will not benefit from drinking goat’s milk or A2 cow’s milk. While these options are often beneficial to those suffering from a milk allergy, they still contain lactose and cannot be digested without the enzyme lactase. It is true that goat’s milk does contain less lactose than cow’s milk and thus can typically be consumed in small quantities by someone with lactose intolerance, but increased consumption will result in a return of symptoms.