Whether you've got a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance in your family, or you're simply giving up milk for a while as part of an elimination diet, you may find yourself checking out the rows of milk alternatives in the grocery store. There are quite a few options available, and most have slightly different properties for drinking and cooking.
Here's a cheat sheet to your options. Just be prepared to sample a variety to figure out which taste suits you best; most are quite distinctive.
Lactose-free milk is only suitable for people with lactose intolerance; it contains the same proteins as milk and is just as allergenic for people with dairy allergies.
That said, for people with an intolerance, lactose-free milk is almost indistinguishable from "regular" milk. The lactase enzyme added to regular milk to break down lactose into simpler sugars makes it taste slightly sweeter to most people. Lactose-free milk is available in both conventional and organic varieties.
Goat Milk and Other Ruminant Milk
Goat, sheep, and other ruminant milks contain similar proteins to cow's milk and are considered to have a high degree of cross-reactivity. That means that people with an allergy to cow's milk are likely to react to other ruminant milks, too.
If you or a loved one have a dairy allergy and you're considering trying goat milk (say, drinking it yourself, or giving it to a toddler), consult an allergist first. These milks do contain lactose and are not suitable for those who are lactose-intolerant without prior use of an over-the-counter lactase supplement.
The most widely available dairy-free milk alternative is soy milk, which can be found both in cartons on supermarket shelves as well as alongside milk in dairy cases. Competition from national brands, like 8th Continent and Silk, has lowered prices across the board, making soy milk one of the more cost-effective milk alternatives.
Soy milk is high in protein, making it an attractive alternative to milk for cooking and baking. Soy itself has a strong, distinctive taste, so make sure you like it before adding it to a sauce or to your favorite cereal.
Almond milk is among the most common nut milks. Like soy milk, nut milks are high in protein and are useful for baking. You may find their taste blends in with baked goods, coffee, or nutty cereals better than soy milk, although personal tastes vary. Nuts are also high in "good fats" and Vitamin E. One drawback to both soy and nut milk: both of these are common allergens in and of themselves.
Unlike soy and nut milks, rice milk is not especially allergenic, making it an attractive choice for families concerned about avoiding allergens in young children.
Rice milk, especially in its vanilla flavor, is quite sweet. But its texture is the most watery of all milk alternatives, and it is not particularly useful for cooking. Being low in protein, it does not make a good nutritional replacement for milk unless heavily fortified. It is best used as a beverage and for pouring on cereal.
A newer milk alternative, hemp milk may be difficult to find in some places. Its protein level and texture fall in between that of rice and soy milk. It is more watery than regular milk when poured, but has enough protein for use in some cooking applications -- sauces that don't rely on large amounts of protein, for example.
Like hemp milk, oat milk has a moderate amount of protein, making it more useful than rice milk for cooking. However, it's still not a true drop-in replacement for cow's milk in baking.
Oat milk may not be suitable for those with celiac disease, who may be sensitive to avenin protein found in oats. Oat milk is fairly mild and nutty tasting, and is a natural match for hot cereals and many breakfast foods.