The Soaring Growth of Dairy Alternatives

alternative dairy products

Even if you’re not a foodie, odds are you’ve noticed some changes at the grocery store. The popularity of dairy alternatives are taking over and they’re starting to include more than just soy milk. But, are these alternatives really all they’re cracked up to be?

Why plant milk?

Traditional milk sales have been on the decline in the US since the 1970s. (Ha, you can’t blame millennials for this one!) But it’s only recently that dairy alternatives beyond soy milk, and even almond milk, have become available (yes, very millennial driven).

Why? Lots of things have been changing in our world, including how we view foods. Consumers are looking for foods that are environmentally friendly, sustainable, healthy, animal-friendly, natural, and locally sourced. On a larger, global scale, much of the Eastern world has never really consumed cow’s milk.

Enter nut milk. And coconut milk. And plant milk. And quinoa milk. And now, oat milk. In fact, the alternative dairy industry is now worth $16 billion, globally.

What dairy alternatives are available?

dairy alternative milk

There are actually too many dairy alternatives to count, these days! Above you’ll see (from left to right) regular 2% dairy milk, oat milk, almond milk, and pea milk. Other popular choices include coconut, rice, cashew, quinoa, hemp, walnut, soy, you name it.

Oat milk is a newer option (in America) that actually originated from Sweden and has been popular in Europe since the 1990s. It hit American coffee shops in 2017 as an alternative creamer. Only within the last year has it become commercially available at some grocery stores and it has become wildly popular.

You can now also purchase non-dairy yogurts, coffee creamer, and even ice cream. The quality and taste of these products are much improved over the products of the past and don’t contain the “beany” flavor associated with soy milk.

Wait, how do you milk an almond?

While you might be imagining a farmer squeezing an oat or almond until a white liquid is produced, this is definitely not the case. In general, most plant and nut milks are made by chopping and soaking in excess water. The liquid is then pressed through a sieve to remove any solid particles. Commercially, the product is homogenized and pasteurized. Homogenization is the process by which the fat is emulsified in the liquid, while pasteurization is the process that heats the milk to remove microbes and extend shelf-life.

“An almond doesn’t lactate”

Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

The process for pea milk is a little different. Peas are milled into flour and the protein is then separated and mixed with water and other ingredients.

Can you really call it milk?

That, my friends, is the million dollar question. Up until now, the FDA didn’t bother those companies labeling alternative options as “milk.” However, increased pressure from the dairy industry has led FDA to reconsider its position. Currently, the FDA is sorting through comments from industry and the public regarding the labeling requirements for these dairy alternatives.

You may be familiar with the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that sets standards of identity for many products, including ice cream, cheese, and chocolate. Milk actually has a very specific, legal definition:

Milk is the lacteal secretion,
practically free from colostrum,
obtained by the complete milking
of one or more healthy cows.

21 CFR § 131.110

In case you’re curious, colostrum is the very nutrient-rich milk produced immediately after a calf is born. Humans also produce colostrum when breastfeeding.

The standard goes on to define the acceptable fat content, added ingredients, and labeling specifics. Considering oat milk and other alternatives clearly do not meet this definition, it is interesting these rules have not been enforced sooner.

When discussing the issue, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb famously quipped, “An almond doesn’t lactate.” But, does that matter? What is the alternative, “nut juice?” “Almond water?” “Oat broth?”

The real concern here is that by calling the product “milk,” consumers may mistakenly believe they are getting equal nutrition to cow’s milk and that’s simply not the case.

It’s important to point out that Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union do not allow alternative milks to be labeled “milk.” They have taken the position that milk must come from a lactating mammal and must be differentiated on the label.

How does it taste?

Products today are highly improved over the less-than-stellar products of the past. I tried a few new options, including oat milk, almond milk, and pea milk.

Right away you can see a stark color difference between the plant milks and dairy milk (front). Particularly the oat milk, which has an interesting beige appearance and the pea milk which was almost a light grey.

In terms of flavor, I enjoyed the almond milk most and felt it was most comparable to traditional milk. It was slightly sweet and nutty, with a creamy and smooth mouthfeel, but was thinner than traditional milk. The color was a dark off-white. I might actually consider switching to almond milk. 

The oat milk was extremely bland up front, but as I swallowed the liquid, I got a very creamy, full feeling in the mouth. It was lightly sweet and reminiscent of oats (of course). The yellow-beige color really threw me off before I tasted the milk. (Side note: The science of color and how it affects our perception of taste is fascinating!) I might buy this milk again.

The pea milk was vanilla-flavored, so it had a very sweet profile that I did not enjoy. It was too sweet and overly flavored but also had a musty, cardboard aftertaste. Again, the grey color was a bit hard to process. It was slightly creamy in texture. Ultimately I would not buy it again.

dairy alternatives versus milk

Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself!

Is it really better for me?

Alright, now let’s compare nutrients of these three products. Each type of milk has a distinctly different nutrient profile and it’s important to understand these differences. Let’s take a look.


Best: Dairy milk

Worst: Almond milk

Regular dairy milk wins this round. Dairy milk contains 8 g protein, while oat milk contains 3 g, and almond milk only 1 g. This makes these alternatives significantly lacking if you are looking for a protein source in your diet.

Did you know? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 9 essential amino acids the body cannot make itself. That means we must get them from our diet.

Pea milk also contains 8 g protein. However, pea protein (and most plant proteins) is not a complete protein, as compared to proteins from animal sources. This means it is deficient in one or more essential amino acids. As long as you’re eating a balanced diet, though, this shouldn’t be too concerning.

Soy milk is considered a complete protein source most similar to dairy.


Best: Oat milk

Worst: Dairy milk

I compared low-fat versions of all products for consistency. Oat milk has 1 g total fat and 0 g saturated fat in a 1 cup serving, followed closely by almond milk at 1.5 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat. This is in large contrast to dairy milk, which has 5 g total fat and 3.5 g saturated fat. Similarly, pea milk has 5 g total fat and 1 g saturated fat.

Remember, reduce your intake of saturated fats and look for healthy sources of unsaturated fats (avocados, olive oil, fatty fish).

One last note on fat: vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, meaning they are best absorbed along with fat. Because most of the dairy alternatives are low in fat, this is another concern. Remember, it’s all about eating a varied diet and getting the right amount of each nutrient.


Best: Oat milk or dairy milk

Worst: Pea milk

A glass of dairy milk contains 11 g carbs. It’s important to note that milk has naturally occurring lactose, or milk sugar, and doesn’t contain added sugars. Oats are also a major source of natural carbohydrates and fiber. Oat milk contains 16 g carbohydrates per serving, but also contains 3 g fiber, unlike dairy milk. It has no added sugar.

While almond milk actually has the lowest amount of carbohydrates at 6 g, both almond milk and pea milk contain added sugars and no appreciable amount of fiber. Pea milk contains 15 g carbohydrates.


Best: Pea milk

Worst: Oat milk

Dairy milk contains 30% of your daily value of calcium and is often considered the gold standard. Pea milk, however, actually contains the highest amount at 47%, followed closely by almond milk at 45%. Oat milk has 25% of the daily valu.

Of course, this calcium was fortified with the additive calcium phosphate, unlike naturally occurring calcium in dairy milk.


As you can see, there are pros and cons to each choice. Take into account your own nutritional needs when making purchases at the grocery store. If you’re looking for protein, dairy milk may be your best choice. If you’re looking to cut out saturated fat and increase your fiber intake, oat milk might be a good choice. Also compare levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and potassium as these are also important nutrients provided by traditional milk.

Remember that even though many of these foods, such as almonds, are naturally high in many vitamins, fats, and fiber, these nutrients don’t survive processing (yes, even if you make it at home) and are not as beneficial as the whole food, itself.

Nutrient absorption from plant milk is also debated. For example, we know that calcium is widely present in many green vegetables, such as spinach, but compounds called oxalates and phytates present in many plants bind this calcium and reduce the bio-availability of this and other minerals, thus leading to low absorption rates in your body. Meanwhile, calcium is very readily absorbed from dairy products. So, just because your replacement product contains equal or higher amounts of certain vitamins, they may not actually be absorbed very well by your body.

Finally, be sure to shake before you drink; most plant milks are fortified with vitamins and minerals to match the nutritional profile of dairy milk and these vitamins can settle to the bottom, affecting absorption even further. By comparison, milk is fortified with Vitamin A and Vitamin D only.

For even more information on nutrition, check out this great PDF resource from the University of Virginia.

Other considerations

As with anything in life, there are always trade-offs. To mimic the consistency and texture of milk, most products use added ingredients and sugar to achieve the desired effect. While you shouldn’t be scared of additives, this is something that some may try to avoid. Try to reduce your intake of added sugar.

Almond milk is one of the most popular substitutes due to its taste, but almonds are thirsty. Literally. When compared to other plant alternatives, almonds stand out as requiring more water. This can be a problem in drought-stricken places such as California, where the majority of the US crop is grown. Consider, then, that you also need more water to transform the almonds into “milk.” However, they do still use less water and resources than dairy cows, of course. Almonds are also not an option for those with nut allergies.

On the other hand, pea protein is emerging as a smart choice for many products. Peas are easy to grow and require less water and resources than both almond and dairy milk, making it a more sustainable choice. While not a complete protein, pea milk offers an equal amount per serving. This is also a smart choice for those who are allergic to dairy and/or nuts.

The bottom line

Ultimately, it comes down to choice. By providing these alternatives, consumers now have more options to make the right choice that fits their needs. Whether it’s environmental concerns. health concerns, or animal rights concerns, you can now purchase what’s right for you and your family. These options can be lifesavers for those with dairy allergies and really help those with lactose intolerance. Rember, though, that it’s not always a perfect answer and you can have a balanced diet with both types of milk. Don’t discount dairy.

Most importantly, be sure you understand the nutrition behind the choices you make. Always be skeptical of the newest fad and do your research first learn both pros and cons.

What do you think?

Yay or nay? Do you enjoy dairy alternatives? Should milk from non-lactating sources be called “milk?” Vote below!

Should companies be able to label dairy alternatives as milk?

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Feel strongly about this topic? Let me know below! You can also read the 13,077 comments left with the FDA to get an idea of how others feel.

For more info

Here are some of the sources I used to learn more about dairy alternatives. I always encourage you to do your own research, so here’s a good place to start.

Franklin-Wallis, O. 2019. White gold: the unstoppable rise of alternative milks. The Guardian. The long read.

Pipkin, W. 2018. A Peas Offering For The Dairy Aisle: Can This Milk Alternative Rival The Real Deal? NPR The Salt

Vanga, S.K. & Raghavan, V. 2018. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? J Food Sci Technol 55: 10.

Weingus, L. 2018. What is Oat milk? This Dairy Alternative Is Having A Mega-Moment. Huffington Post. Food & Drink.

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