Ah ... the world of milk and milk-like beverages. There are a lot of strong opinions about this topic; for some, milk is considered a poison, but to others it's the most healing substance on Earth. With such a wide range of opinions, it's no wonder that people are confused. What is a healthy choice? That loaded question can be hard to answer because there are many variables to consider.

As for me, I started out with a typical American diet high in store-bought milk and cheddar cheese. I pretty much adored dairy products. While I might not eat a block of cheese at a meal, dairy added so much deliciousness to many dishes. I think of what adding that sprinkle of cheese on the top of a salad does for it, or a scoop of sour cream on a taco, or a drizzle of cream over a bowl of fresh picked berries — and let’s not forgot a piece of whole wheat bread spread with butter. Life without dairy was hard to fathom.

But then, in my early 20s, I discovered that dairy didn’t love me as much as I loved it. So, I very, very sadly put dairy away. I discovered good dairy-free creaminess in the form of coconut milk (perfect for making dairy-free ice cream); I loved using coconut oil in baked goods; and I found I could tolerate butter, so I kept that in my diet. When making creamy soups diary-free for my book, "Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons," I found that homemade almond milk was a perfect substitute.

When making tacos, my family started using a lot of homemade guacamole to add creaminess and flavor. Coconut cream could be whipped to make a creamy topping for desserts, nuts added richness to salads, and I could say with conviction that a dairy-free diet could be delicious after all.

Now, after some more advanced testing, I've discovered that while cow’s milk does indeed disagree with me, goat’s milk should be fine. I still feel like it is too good to be true, as I have started to experiment with adding in cheese and yogurt and milk. While my dairy-free life has been quite happy, I never quite got over liking diary products. (We still aren’t sure how accurate this test was, but I am willing to try it out.) Warm milk heated with a little honey and vanilla is my treat now. Yogurt spooned over apples and nuts makes a beautiful snack (and you can do this with a dairy-free yogurt too!). I had made myself a beautiful, happy, dairy-free life — but I still like a cup of real milk to go with a cookie.

I am not going to attempt to answer all the swirling questions about what is the best milk substitute for those living dairy-free, or whether regular dairy should be an option for you, but I will give you a couple of my thoughts on dairy and non-dairy drinks.

1. Consider your heritage

My children are a quarter Japanese. They, like many Asians, have a food heritage that didn't include much dairy, if any. It is possible that those who come from a strong non-dairy background are more unlikely to digest milk easily. My daughter got eczema when we tried to give her regular milk. Various groups and cultures have a relationship with the food in their region. Through the generations, bodies adapt to what is available to them, so whether you do well with regular dairy or not could be connected to your heritage.

2. Consider the source

While I am eating and drinking some dairy products now, I am not buying whatever dairy I come across. I am drinking goat’s milk from a local farm that raises the goats in a healthy environment. Too many companies don’t use good, clean practices in their dairy process because they know that it will be pasteurized and any “germs” will be killed. (I’d still like my milk without gross things in it, thank you.)

 

After some serious deliberations, I tried drinking raw milk. Because the enzymes are left intact in raw milk, my stomach does much better with it. And because certain nutrients, like calcium, are more absorbable in raw milk, I know that I am getting more benefits from drinking it.

 

Raw milk is a loaded topic and beyond the scope of this post, but I know that many who have trouble with regular dairy do fine with raw. Safety is important, so only get raw milk from those who follow proper procedures, and educate yourself about the risks and benefits. Here are a couple of resources where you can learn more:

Websites:

  • Realmilk.com (This website is pro-raw milk, but since they write rebuttals against any serious allegations against raw milk, it is a good resource to follow to find out both sides of the story.)
  • Westonaprice.org
Books:
 

3. Is your non-dairy 'milk' real food?

If you don’t want to drink milk, or simply can’t drink it, what can you use in place of milk in baking, for your oatmeal and drinking? The first thing I consider is whether this milk is a true “real food” ingredient. It is just a super-sweetened grain beverage? A highly sweetened beverage doesn't fit my idea of real food. While it might work as a substitute taste-wise, I pause before using it, as I want my “milk” to add nutrition, not just empty calories. Because non-dairy milk can be low nutritionally, vitamins and minerals are almost always added to them. While this could be helpful if you are a starving, malnourished child, I question how effective these cheap nutrients are, and how much good they are doing. I would rather feed my child a nutritious diet, and use a high quality multi-vitamin than depend on the milk with cheap vitamin/minerals added. (As a side note, vitamins A and D are sometimes also added to regular milk, and I avoid those as well.)

With that in mind, for our non-dairy options we have mostly depended on homemade milk made from almonds or coconut flakes. We also really enjoy this “coconut milk tonic” that is creamy and delicious. These were some of the best real food milk options I found.

In closing, I recommend that when you consider what dairy or dairy-free substitute to use, to keep it real, consider your heritage and consider your source. Those three thoughts have helped me wade through the many different options in the marketplace.

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