Diet & Nutrition

Check Milk Substitute Labels to Know What You're Getting

Milk substitutes are among the hot trends on grocery store shelves right now. But finding a substitute with nutritional benefits similar to cow’s milk is tricky, according to the April 2015 Harvard Health Letter.

Why drink a milk substitute? Some people want to drink milk, but just not dairy milk. Others have trouble digesting a natural sugar in dairy milk called lactose. It can cause gastrointestinal distress. “They may be lactose intolerant, or just lactose sensitive,” says Linda Antinoro, a registered dietitian with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

A good alternative for those who have pain, bloating, or other lactose-related symptoms is lactose-free milk. This is dairy milk that has an enzyme called lactase added to it. Lactase helps break down lactose into more easily digested sugars. But it’s still important to buy low-fat lactose-free milk. Full-fat milk, with or without lactose, is rich in saturated fats, which increase LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol.

Plant-based milk substitutes are another option. These “milks” are actually the fluids strained from a mixture of water and a ground ingredient, such as soybeans, nuts (almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts), grains (rice, oats, quinoa), or seeds (hemp, pumpkin).

But check the nutrition label carefully. Nut, grain, and seed milks don’t have as much calcium or protein as dairy milk. Grain milks are high in carbohydrates. And soy milk, while similar in calcium and protein content to dairy milk, has sugars that may cause gastrointestinal distress. Something else to be wary of: milk substitutes with flavors such as vanilla or chocolate, are usually loaded with added sugars.

The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).


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