The next time you ask someone if they "got milk," the answer may surprise you. "Sure, we have soy, rice, almond, multigrain, oat, and potato. Would you like vanilla, carob, chocolate, strawberry, or plain?"

Milk sure has changed. And for many people, that change is welcome news. According to an article published in the American Family Physician, up to 100% of Asians and American Indians, 80% of blacks and Latinos, and 15% 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, or 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 effect’s of too little lactase, while others may only be able to handle a very small amount or none at all. Overall, one in four Americans suffer from some degree of lactose intolerance.

Saying No to Milk

Not everyone who shuns 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 have religious convictions (eg, Buddhists) or other personal reasons for avoiding cow's milk.

Fortunately, nondairy milks are abundant and now found in many supermarkets. Not only can you buy milk made from soybeans, rice, nuts, oats, potato, and combinations thereof, you also can pick your favorite flavor, fat content (regular, reduced fat, low-fat, or no-fat), and various levels of nutrient fortification. And with such a great selection, it is important to read the ingredient and nutrition information to help you select the best products for your needs.

Oh Boy, Soy!

Soy milk is the most popular of the nondairy milk beverages. Each soy milk on the market has its own texture, taste, and consistency, and in general, is 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. For the freshest soy milk, you can make your own (see Resources section).

Oatmeal in a Glass

We can thank a group of Swedish farmers and scientists for inventing oat milk. Richard Oste, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Lund University in Sweden, developed the process. Called the Oste Process, it uses oat kernels and rapeseed (canola) oil to produce a neutral tasting, highly stable beverage that is also an excellent substitute for cow's milk in cooking and baking. Oat milk contains vitamin E and ]]>folic acid]]> and is low in fat and contains amino acids, vitamins, 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, Nuts, Spuds, and Combos

Rice milk is lighter and sweeter than soy milk. Some people say it tastes closer to cow's milk than the other nondairy choices. Almond milk is the number one 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 (non)dairy case, and it is available in both liquid and powder form, although distribution is still limited. Combination beverages often contain oats, barley, soybeans, and brown rice.

Cow Versus Plant-Based Milk

Will you get enough calcium and other nutrients from nondairy milk? Yes, if you buy fortified products. The most common nutrients 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. Buy brands that contain 20% to 30% of the U.S. RDA for calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12, which makes them nutritionally similar to cow's milk. If for some reason you lack exposure to the sun, buy products fortified with vitamin D . Not all nondairy beverages are fortified, so check the labels.

Cooking with Nondairy Milk

Nondairy milks are great in shakes and on cereal, but can you cook or bake with them?

Sure, says Robert Oser, a former chef at the world-famous Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson, Arizona, and author of Flavors of the Southwest . Your results, says Oser, will "depend on the brand and the fat content of the milk substitute you use." You can "pretty much" substitute nondairy milk for cow's milk one-to-one in a recipe, he says, but experimentation is often in order. When making gravy, for example, you 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 suited for gravies and most entrees. Oat and potato milks are more neutral and complement soups and main dishes. Be aware that soy-based beverages or 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.

Buying and Using Nondairy Beverages

Remember these guidelines when shopping for nondairy milk:

  • Consider why you are buying the product: as a beverage, to use on cereal, or in recipes. You may need several types.
  • Choose products that meet your nutrient needs.
  • Most nondairy beverages come in packages which generally last six months or longer unopened. Once opened, they must be refrigerated and used within seven to 10 days.
  • Not all brands taste the same. Experiment with several.
  • Powdered forms are usually less expensive and allow you to vary the consistency.
  • Nondairy beverages are not suitable for infants. There are specially designed soy-based infant formulas available.
  • More than 30 brands of nondairy beverages are on the market. A few include: Better Than Milk, Eden, Grainaissance, Harmony Farms, Mill Milk, Pacific Foods, Soyco Foods, Vitamite, White Wave, and Whyte's DariFree. Availability varies depending on where you live.