Suffering from a dairy intolerance, trying to cut down on saturated fat or simply starting a plant-based diet can all send you scurrying to find healthy dairy substitutes for all your beloved foods.
The good news: Supermarkets are packed with plenty of dairy-free alternatives to milk, cheese, yogurt and more — so you shouldn't have trouble finding one you like.
"We have come so far in the world of dairy substitutes," says Rich Sweeney, culinary director for Tocaya Organica. "With so many choices, there is now a super versatile array of culinary applications that can be customized to your individual palate," he says.
While it is important to keep nutrition in mind when you're choosing a new nut-based milk or soy yogurt, you'll want to keep your taste buds in mind, too. "When it comes to dairy substitutes, the best one is the one you like the most," says Sweeney. These options below are both good for your body and your palate.
Before You Buy
Remember to review the ingredient list of any dairy alternatives before you purchase, says Krista King, RDN, CPT, a functional dietitian and certified health coach.
Products often contain additives, such as preservatives and fillers, as well as added sugar, King says. Look for items with 10 grams of added sugar or less per serving and choose options with a short ingredient list, she recommends. "And check the serving size — many products contain multiple servings even if the container seems to contain just one serving."
1. Plant-Based Milk Alternatives
"We have come leaps and bounds from the old days of chalky soy milk," Sweeney says. One healthy milk-replacement option is to make your own from nuts and seeds, blending in a one-to-four ratio of nuts/seeds to water.
"Nuts and seeds are a great source of healthy fats and minerals like magnesium and zinc," King says. Choose from cashews, almonds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds or sunflower seeds, she says — or opt for a combination of a few or all.
Of course, not everyone has time to soak and pulverize nuts and seeds to make their own milk. Fortunately, there are plenty of options available for purchase that are made from oats, nuts and soy, which can be used in place of dairy milk.
The protein in non-dairy products is often minimal, says King, which is a contrast to protein-rich cow's whole milk, which has 7.7 grams of protein per cup, according to the USDA. If you're concerned that you're not getting enough protein, soy milk is good option as it packs 7 grams per cup. Other common dairy-free milk options include:
2. Dairy-Free Cheese Substitutes
When dairy-free cheese substitutes are made from protein-rich nuts, they're slightly higher in fiber and carbohydrates than dairy cheese, King notes. Other dairy-free cheese options may be made from coconut oil and potato or corn starch, she says — these variants are lower in protein, fat and carbs compared to traditional cheese.
One ounce of cheddar cheese packs in 115 calories, 6.5 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat and less than a gram of carbohydrates, according to the USDA. In contrast, an ounce of Cheddar-Style Shreds from Daiya contains 80 calories, 1 gram of protein, 4.5 grams of fat and 7 grams of carbs, while an ounce of dairy-free Violife feta contains 90 calories, zero protein, 8 grams of fat and 3 grams of carbs.
You can also make your own dairy-free cheese, says Sweeney. "Cheese alternatives can be made from nuts, starches and other oils, and range from soft like a shredded mozzarella, sliced like cheddar or even grated like a parmesan," he says. If you're looking for a substitute for parmesan cheese to top pasta with, nutritional yeast, which has a rich, cheese-like flavor, is a great option.
3. Dairy-Free Yogurt Swaps
The quest for a suitable non-dairy yogurt has been elusive, but much like 'milk' alternatives, there are lots of tasty new choices on the market, Sweeney says.
A 3.5-ounce serving (a bit less than a half cup) of plain, low-fat dairy yogurt has 63 calories, 5 grams of protein, 1.5 grams of fat and 7 grams of carbs. The same amount of plain soy yogurt has 66 calories, 2.6 grams of protein, 1.8 grams of fat and 9.7 grams of carbs while the same size serving of cashew yogurt contains 115 calories, 1.7 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat and 11.5 grams of carbs.
Dairy-free yogurt alternatives can also be made from almonds and coconut. An almond-based one has a similar amount of carbohydrates and fat to dairy-based yogurt but less protein. A coconut-based yogurt won't be a good source of protein, says King.
A 3.5-ounce serving of almond yogurt has 107 calories, 4 grams of protein, 8.7 grams of fat and 3 grams of carbs, and the same amount of coconut yogurt has 71 calories, less than a gram of protein, 3.1 grams of fat and 11 grams of carbs.
Dairy-free yogurts' consistency is a little looser than typical dairy yogurt, which can be noticeable if you're eating it on its own, Sweeney says. But that starts to fade away once you add some tasty add-ins like nuts, chia seeds and fruit.
Whichever option you choose, check the sugar count on the nutritional label. "I always recommend opting for unsweetened yogurt and sweetening it with fruit," says King. And also look out for "live and active cultures" on the ingredient list to ensure your yogurt alternative contains gut-friendly probiotics, too.
4. Dairy-Free Butter Substitutes
Many oil-based options are available that can be used in place of butter, whether you're spreading it on bread or using it in baking. These can be made using coconut, flaxseed, olive, canola, palm or other oils. "These butter alternatives have a similar macronutrient breakdown to real butter — no protein or carbohydrates, all fat," King says.
"The difference is in the type of fat," King says. Butter contains saturated fat, she notes, whereas vegetable oils (which are typically used in dairy-free butter substitutes) contain polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. Choosing unsaturated fats in place of saturated ones may improve your blood cholesterol levels, according to the American Heart Association.
Brands we love: Miyoko's Tomorrow's Creamery Cultured Vegan Butter and Earth Balance Vegan Butter
5. Dairy-Free Heavy Cream Swaps
Do you struggle giving up the rich cream in your coffee or crave something to whip up and serve alongside desserts? Coconut cream — which is readily available in a can — works well as a dairy-free cream substitute, King says. Sweeney notes that you can whip this cream up to a fluffy lightness to top off a dessert.
The nutritional makeup of coconut cream is similar to heavy cream. A tablespoon of coconut cream has about 68 calories, less than a gram of protein and 3 grams of fat while a tablespoon of heavy cream has 50 calories, no protein and 5 grams of fat.
Read more: Healthy Substitutes for Heavy Cream
Cashew cream is another dairy-free alternative. It provides a small amount of fiber and carbohydrates and is likely to have less fat and fewer calories than heavy cream, King says, adding that the precise amounts depend on the ratio of cashews to water and portion size.
To make cashew cream, combine pre-soaked cashews with water nut milk and whip them together to form a cream. In addition to using this as a dessert topper, you can also use this mixture to make a cream-style sauce, says Sweeney. For instance, blend in some smoked tomatoes to transform it into a creamy hollandaise alternative, he suggests.
6. Dairy-Free Sour Cream Substitutes
Vegan sour creams are available, but a vegan yogurt also works well as a swap here, our experts agree. Or, try silken tofu: It's lower in fat and higher in protein than dairy sour cream, King says.
To make a sour cream substitute from tofu, place the silken tofu in the food processor and whip it to duplicate sour cream's soft, creamy texture, says Sweeney. "Since tofu is a sponge for flavors, you can also add in some cilantro before you blend it for delicious taco topping."
Read more: Is Tofu Good to Eat for Weight Loss?
7. Dairy-Free Ice Cream Alternatives
You'll find it surprisingly simple to make your own dairy-free ice cream at home. Simply blend bananas with additional flavors such as vanilla and maple syrup. "You can toss in some cocoa powder and then some roasted walnuts at the end to make your own not-so-chunky monkey," Sweeney says. In place of bananas, you can also blend coconut cream or frozen mango with the flavors of your choice, King says.
Opting for store-bought dairy-free ice cream? "In the freezer aisle, reach for ice creams that have a coconut or soy base — these have the texture and mouthfeel that is closest to dairy ice cream," recommends Sweeney.
You can also find store-bought ice cream made from avocado as well as from almond milk. "Nutritionally, these options are all pretty comparable to regular ice cream if you are only looking at alternatives that swap out regular milk for a non-dairy base. The fat, sugar, carbohydrates and protein will all be about the same," says King.
However, she notes, it's possible to find non-dairy alternatives with lower calories and sugar than dairy ice cream since these options usually contain of calorie-free sugar substitutes.
Why Go Dairy-Free?
There are plenty of reasons people might eliminate dairy. If you're in any of these camps, try the dairy-free alternatives above to enjoy all your favorite foods while sticking to your health goals.
Relieve Symptoms Due to Lactose Intolerance or a Dairy Allergy or Sensitivity
People who lack the lactase enzyme struggle with breaking down lactose, a sugar that's found in dairy, King says. "This results in digestive upset when consuming milk or dairy products," King says. (Think: diarrhea, nausea, stomach upset and other GI symptoms.) Lactose intolerance is quite common — about 65 percent of people have a reduced ability to digest lactose, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Some people can be allergic to the proteins found in dairy, which activate their immune system, says King. Some people have a milk sensitivity, which also causes the immune system to be activated, King says. "Symptoms [with a sensitivity] may not be as immediate as with a milk allergy," she notes. Cutting dairy can help alleviate these issues.
Reduce Gastrointestinal Distress
If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or general gut issues like abdominal cramping, diarrhea, bloating or constipation, going dairy-free may help ease your symtoms.
"When you add dairy back into your diet, you'll likely know pretty quickly if it worsens your symptoms," King says. That can help determine whether you may have an intolerance, too.
Cut Saturated Fat
Some people may also avoid dairy due to concerns about saturated fat, which may raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Foods that are high in saturated fats include butter, cheese and dairy products made from whole or two-percent milk as well as some plant oils, according to the AHA, which recommends that people only get five to six percent of their calories from saturated fat each day. It's important to note that many non-dairy products made with coconut oil or palm oil could be just as high in saturated fat, if not higher than some dairy products, so be sure to read nutrition labels carefully.
Read more: What Are Some Disadvantages of Dairy Milk?