Milk is the ultimate comfort food. The first substance we taste — it transports us to childhood. In the U.S., milk brings to mind glasses of the cold beverage paired with chocolate chip cookies and cartons served alongside school lunches. We associate this symbol of nourishment with calcium (for strong bones) and protein (for strong muscles). In short, in our culture, milk equals growth itself.

Dairy milk becoming less popular

Although milk has been a staple in the U.S. diet, its role has been diminishing. Plant-based milk, primarily almond, has been taking up an increasing amount of shelf space in stores, with cow’s milk losing its stronghold. According to the Nielsen report “Americans Are Nuts for Almond Milk” (March 31, 2016), almond milk sales in the U.S. have grown 250 percent over the past five years. Furthermore, “during that same period … the total milk market shrunk by more than $1 billion.”

The reasons for this change are many, among them an increasing amount of data showing that cow’s milk is not essential to the human diet and might even be harmful. According to the article “Health Concerns About Dairy Products” on the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website, “Clinical research shows that dairy products have little or no benefit for bones. …” The article also states that “consumption of dairy products has … been linked to higher risk for various cancers,” especially those of the prostate and breasts. Finally, it mentions a study of infants (prone to diabetes) that links the early introduction of cow’s milk to an increased susceptibility to type 1 diabetes.

Furthermore, awareness of dietary intolerances and allergies has spread. For instance, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine website, 65 percent of the human population after infancy is lactose intolerant, which means unable to properly digest the lactose (milk sugar) naturally found in milk. The incidence of lactose intolerance is especially prevalent among East Asians (more than 90 percent of adults), West Africans, Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Italians.

That said, there is no real test for lactose intolerance, and different people have different thresholds for the amount of lactose they can tolerate. As a result, many might feel bloated or experience stomach discomfort (gas, an upset stomach) but not realize why. With the extensive media coverage of gluten intolerance, people might posit that gluten is the issue, rather than the much more likely culprit: an intolerance to lactose. In addition, Food Allergy Research & Education pegs the prevalence of milk allergies (an allergy to the protein in milk) at 1-2 percent for young children and 0.2-0.4 percent in the general population.

Beyond issues with the sugar and protein in cow’s milk, vegan and paleo diets (both of which eschew dairy milk) have recently become more popular. And since kosher rules prohibit the mixing of milk and meat in meals, dairy-free substitutes for milk and other dairy items have been in demand for years.

“Consumption of dairy products has … been linked to higher risk for various cancers,” especially those of the prostate and breasts.”


Enter plant-based milks

Fortunately, plant-based milks are excellent substitutes for cow’s milk. Virtually any natural solid ingredient (nuts, seeds, grains, coconuts, tubers and legumes) can be made into an alternate form of milk. Since the flavors, hues and consistencies of the resulting milks vary, different ones can be used for different recipes.

While cashew milk is creamy and ideal for dairy-free cream sauces, store-bought rice milk is thinner and tends to work extremely well in crepes. Pale green pistachio milk complements oatmeal (especially recipes featuring cardamom or orange flower water), while naturally sweet tiger nut milk works beautifully in coffee and savory black bean milk pairs well with stews.

When it comes to nutrition, if you’re concerned about protein, legume milks (including soy, pea and peanut) have the same amount as cow’s milk. The others can be fortified with protein powder (many packaged plant-based milks are indeed fortified). While alt milks naturally contain less calcium than cow’s milk, most alternative products are likewise fortified. In any case, other foods and drinks, among them dark leafy greens, nuts and fish, can provide this nutrient.

Overall, plant-based milks should win gold stars from nutritionists. They are free of cholesterol and hormones (organic cow’s milk is also hormone-free). They’re also lower in natural sugar than cow’s milk. Just be sure to purchase “unsweetened” rather than “original” versions or make them yourself, leaving out sweeteners. If you’re concerned about carrageenan (an emulsifier and thickener derived from seaweed, which has been linked to stomach upset), look for brands without this ingredient.

How to DIY

Stores abound with plant-based milks. Natural food shops now stock many varieties, including soy, almond, cashew, hazelnut, rice, coconut, quinoa, hemp, flax and more. These milks, available in shelf-stable aseptic containers or in cartons in the refrigerated dairy section, tend to have a long shelf life and are incredibly convenient to keep on hand.

That said, preparing your own batches is fun and easy. Plus, if you DIY, you’ll have complete control over the ingredients, variety, taste and consistency of the milk. You’ll also be able to experience more varieties than those available in stores, for instance, pistachio or barley milk.

The basic method is to soak nuts, grains, some seeds, legumes and tubers for several hours or overnight. Then drain and rinse. Cook the grains and legumes. Then puree the solid ingredient with fresh water in the blender. If you use more water, your milk will be thinner; use less, and your milk will be thicker. If you opt for a 1:1 ratio of solids to water, you’ll end up with a rich, delicious cream.

Once you’ve prepared the milk, you can choose to leave it as is or strain it for a more refined texture akin to cow’s milk. To strain it, use a nut milk bag (which resembles a cross between a pastry bag and cheesecloth; you can find one at The New Milks Shop). Alternatively, opt for a fine handheld strainer covered with cheesecloth. The active time required is only about five minutes for nuts, seeds and tubers. (It’s the same for legumes and grains; just add the time needed to cook them.)

For coconut milk, choose mature brown coconuts, whose contents slosh around when shaken. Poke holes in the eyes of the fruits, and drain out the coconut water. Then hack the fruit open, and cut the white flesh from the brown skin. Place the coconut water and white coconut flesh along with hot water in a blender, puree, and strain.

For the first time in your life you’ll feel pride in making your own milk — something you might not have thought possible!