Non-dairy milks and other non-dairy products have grown in popularity over the past decade and continue to pique the interest of the public, particularly for health, dietary restriction and wellness reasons.
Non-dairy milk is made using water (the main ingredient), a non-dairy substitute, a vitamin and mineral blend and, if desired, sweetener. Nut milks, soy milk and oat milk are made by blending the nuts, soy beans or oats with water after soaking. The blended mixture is fortified with vitamins and minerals and a select sweetener. A variety of sweetener options are available, including date powder, maple syrup or extracts for flavoring.
There are many aspects to consider when searching for the right milk substitution. It is important to select non-dairy milk fortified with essential vitamins and minerals to enhance proper bone health and metabolism synthesis. One should consider selecting milks fortified with vitamin B12, calcium and vitamins D and E. Milks fortified with these micronutrients tend to have even more calcium than dairy milk options.
When it comes to dietary restrictions, many people can have an allergy or an intolerance to lactose, a sugar naturally occurring in most dairy products. When someone is allergic to lactose, their immune system is triggered to respond to the lactose as a foreign object in the body. When someone is lactose intolerant, they are a missing an enzyme (lactase) needed for proper digestion of lactose.
Lactose normally gets digested in your stomach and small intestine, but given the absence of lactase to help the normal digestion process, undigested lactose moves down into your colon. When not digested prior to entering the colon, dysfunction and discomfort occurs in the gut, and lactose is instead broken down by bacteria – causing gas, discomfort and loose stools.
Some dairy products do afford some latitude for those with lactose intolerance. Greek yogurt is an example of a dairy product lower in lactose and more readily tolerated in the gut. During the straining process for Greek yogurt, the whey (liquid by-product) is removed. Whey holds a majority of the lactose in dairy milk, and therefore Greek yogurt can be tolerated by most people with lactose intolerance. Intolerance is experienced on a custom scale, meaning the intensity of the discomfort is based on the type of food and/or beverage consumed.
An allergy is much more complex, where your body reacts to the proteins within dairy products as if they are invaders in your system. An allergic reaction can occur on a scale of being mild or severe. An allergic response can be as mild as a rash or as severe as respiratory failure.
Some benefits of consuming non-dairy milk in particular include reduced calories, less fat content due to a higher water content, no cholesterol and easier digestion. There are also lactose-free dairy milk products. However, these products have reduced protein density, lower calcium when unfortified, artificial sweetener may be added and are higher in cost. Ultimately, non-dairy products are a more nutrient-dense option for those who experience either lactose intolerance, allergies or just prefer dairy alternatives.
Healthline. 2021. “6 Dairy Foods That Are Naturally Low in Lactose.” Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/dairy-foods-low-in-lactose#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6> [Accessed 12 October 2021].
One Green Planet. 2021. “Here’s Why Non-Dairy Milk Is a Health Choice, Not Health Hype.” Available at: <https://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/heres-why-non-dairy-milk-is-a-health-choice-not-health-hype/> [Accessed 12 October 2021].
WebMD. 2021. “Lactose Intolerance vs. Dairy Allergy.” Available at: <https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/lactose-intolerance-or-dairy-allergy> [Accessed 12 October 2021].
Rayna Asbury is a dietetic intern at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center.