Dairy foods play a key role in many people’s diets. A number of food products are made from the milk of cows, sheep and goats, including cheese, yogurt, milk, butter and ice cream. But if you can’t or don’t want to eat dairy, you can find nondairy alternatives to these and many other dairy foods.
Why You Might Want Substitutes for Dairy
There are several reasons people might be looking for substitutes for dairy. Here are some of the more common ones:
Milk allergy: 2–3% of kids under three have a milk allergy. This can cause a range of symptoms from hives and stomach upset to severe anaphylaxis. Most kids outgrow it by their teenage years (1, 2).
Lactose intolerance: 75% of the world’s population doesn’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest the milk sugar lactose. This causes symptoms including bloating, gas and diarrhea (3, 4, 5).
Vegan or ovo-vegetarian diet: Some vegetarian diets exclude dairy products. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but no dairy, while vegans exclude all food and products that come from animals (6).
Potential contaminants: Some people choose to forgo dairy due to a concern over potential contaminants in conventional milk and dairy products, including hormones, pesticides and antibiotics (7, 8, 9).
The good news is there are plenty of substitutes for all the major dairy foods, including the seven below.
1. Milk Substitutes
Milk has many uses, including as a beverage, added to smoothies or poured on cereal. Nutritionally speaking, milk is rich in protein, carbs and calcium. In fact, 1 cup (237 ml) of whole milk provides 146 calories, 8 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 13 grams of carbs (10). Plant-based milk alternatives can be made from legumes (soy), cereals (oats, rice), nuts (almond, coconut), seeds (flax, hemp) or other grains (quinoa, teff) (11). Some products are fortified with calcium and vitamin D to make them similar to dairy milk, while others are not. Certain alternative milks may also be fortified with vitamin B12 (12).
Many of these nondairy milks also have added sugars to enhance their taste, although most brands offer an unsweetened version (13). Some nondairy milks are sold in the refrigerated section, while others are shelf stable. Below are some of the most common substitutes, along with their basic nutrition info for 1 cup of the “original” versions:
Soy milk: Contains 109 calories, 5 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein and 8 grams of carbs (14).
Rice milk: Contains 120 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 23 grams of carbs (15).
Oat milk: Contains 130 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein and 24 grams of carbs (16).
Almond milk: Contains 60 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 8 grams of carbs (17, 18, 19).
Coconut milk: Contains 80 calories, 5 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein and 7 grams of carbs (20, 21).
Cashew milk: Contains 60 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 9 grams of carbs (22).
Flaxseed milk: Contains 50 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein and 7 grams of carbs (23).
Hemp milk: Contains 100–140 calories, 5–7 grams of fat, 2–5 grams of protein and 8–20 grams of carbs (24, 25).
Summary: The nutrient content of nondairy milks varies substantially, although across the board they’re lower in fat compared to cow’s milk. All but soy milk also have less protein.
2. Yogurt Replacements
Yogurt is made by adding live active bacterial cultures to milk in order to ferment it. These “good” bacteria help promote a healthy gut (26, 27). Plain yogurt is an especially versatile food. In addition to being a breakfast and snack food, it can be used in salad dressings, dips and marinades, or to accompany meat and roasted vegetable dishes. One cup (236 ml) of whole-milk yogurt provides 149 calories, 8 grams of fat, 9 grams of protein and 11 grams of carbs (28).
Some types of yogurt, such as Greek yogurt, are higher in protein, while flavored yogurts are generally higher in carbs from added sugar. As with nondairy milks, substitutes for yogurt are made from nuts, seeds, coconut and soy, and are made by adding probiotic bacteria. Although nutrition content can vary widely based on brand, here’s a general comparison of the different nondairy yogurt alternatives. These are all based on 6 ounces of the “plain” flavor.
Coconut milk yogurt: 180 calories, 14 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 12 grams of carbs (29).
Almond milk yogurt: 128 calories, 7 grams of fat, 3 grams of protein, 14 grams of carbs and less than 1 gram of fiber (30).
Soy milk yogurt: 80 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein and 6 grams of carbs (31).
Hemp yogurt: 147 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 11 grams of protein, 16 grams of carbs and 3.4 grams of fiber (32).
Since nutritional composition can vary greatly between brands, be sure to read the label if you’re looking for a specific amount of carbs, fat or protein.
Summary: Nondairy yogurts can be made by adding live active cultures to an assortment of plant-based milks. They vary in their content of protein, fat and carbs.
3. Substitutes for Cheese
Dairy cheese tends to fall into two main categories: soft and hard. It’s made by fermenting cow, goat or sheep milk with bacterial cultures, then adding an acid or rennet to the mixture. This causes the milk proteins to coagulate and form curds. Salt is then added and the curds are shaped, stored and possibly aged.Nutritionally, dairy cheese generally delivers protein, calcium and fat — plus sodium. Some cheese varieties are higher in sodium than others.
Soft Cheese Substitutes
It’s easier to replicate the texture and even the flavor of soft cheese. You can find soy- and nut-based versions of cream cheese, as well as a dairy-free, gluten-free and soy-free versions made from a blend of vegetable oils, tapioca starch and pea protein isolate. You can also make homemade cream cheese or soft crumbly cheese using cashews, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts or almonds. And if you’re simply trying to mimic the texture of cottage and ricotta cheeses, then you could use crumbled soft tofu as a replacement.
Hard Cheese Substitutes
It’s more challenging to mimic the texture, fat content and taste of hard cheese in nondairy form. Casein is the milk protein that gives cheese the ability to melt and stretch, and food scientists have found it very hard to replicate. Manufacturers have had to turn to different gums, proteins and fats to try to achieve a similar mouthfeel and melting properties. Nevertheless, many companies try. Most brands use soy protein or nuts as a base, although there are some soy- and nut-free varieties that are made from vegetable oils mixed with pea starch or pea protein. Many people find nutritional yeast to be a good flavor substitute for grated Parmesan cheese. As an added bonus, it’s a good source of vitamin B12 (33). You can also make your own version by processing nuts and nutritional yeast with desired spices. Here’s a recipe to try.
The nutritional differences between nondairy cheese and regular cheese depend on the substitute. The protein content is usually lower in the dairy-free alternatives and some brands have up to 8 grams of carbs per ounce (28 grams), whereas dairy cheese rarely has more than 1 gram per ounce. Processed nondairy cheeses often contain many more ingredients than dairy cheese. For instance, one brand of nondairy cream cheese uses trans-fat-filled, partially hydrogenated oil and sugar and many other additives, in addition to tofu. These are arguably much worse than regular cream cheese. However, homemade nut-based cheeses let you swap one whole food for another.
Summary: Vegan cheeses are often highly processed and offer less protein than dairy cheese. However, you can also make homemade substitutions with whole foods like tofu, nuts and nutritional yeast.
4. Alternatives for Butter
Butter is made by churning cream until it hardens. It lends fat and flavor to food and is often used as a spread on bread, to dress cooked vegetables or meats, or as a cooking or baking ingredient. One tablespoon (14 grams) of butter provides 100 calories, 11 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein and 0 grams of carbs (34). The many nondairy butter alternatives that currently exist are either made from vegetable oils or coconut. Some have the same number of calories as cow’s milk butter. Others have more protein or carbs than butter, but this isn’t true across the board. Nut and seed butters, such as those made from almond, cashew and sunflower seeds, are also options, depending on what you plan to use the butter substitute for.
Here’s how these nondairy butter substitutes stack up nutritionally per tablespoon:
Vegetable oil blends: 50–100 calories, 6–11 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein and 0 grams of carbs (35, 36, 37).
Coconut butter: 105–130 calories, 10–14 grams of fat, 0–2 grams of protein and 0–8 grams of carbs (38, 39, 40).
Cultured vegan butter, made from coconut and cashews: 90 calories, 10 grams of fat, 0 grams of protein and 0 grams of carbs (41).
Nut butters: 93–101 calories, 8–9 grams of fat, 2–3 grams of protein and 3–4 grams of carbs (42, 43, 44).
Watch out for many vegetable-oil-based margarines on the market that still contain dairy derivatives, such as whey.
You can also make your own dairy-free butters at home. This one uses a blend of coconut oil, liquid oils and nondairy milk.
Summary: There are several plant-based butter alternatives and the calories and fat tend to be similar to that of dairy butter.
5. Cream Substitutes
Cream is the higher-fat top layer of separated fresh milk. It can be between 10% to over 40% fat, depending on the type of cream being created: half-and-half, light cream, whipped cream or heavy cream. In the kitchen, cream is used as a topping for sweet or savory dishes, or as an ingredient in sauces, soups, puddings, custards and even cakes. Light cream and half-and-half are commonly added to coffee or other beverages. A tablespoon (15 ml) of heavy cream contains 52 calories, 5.6 grams of fat and less than half a gram each of carbs and protein (45). There are many nondairy alternatives to heavy cream and whipping cream, as well as to coffee creamers. Many nondairy alternatives to cream are made with coconut milk, especially homemade versions. But similar to dairy-free cheeses and yogurts, some varieties are made with soy, cashews and other nuts, or a blend of vegetable oils. In general, nondairy creams are lower in calories and fat than the dairy versions. Like dairy cream, most vegan versions have no protein, but a few versions have carbs. Some dairy-free alternatives are highly processed and may contain undesirable ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fat. So it may be worth trying the homemade substitutes that are made from whole foods, such as this one made from almonds.
Summary: Coconut milk and cream are versatile substitutes for dairy-based creams. There are also soy-, nut- and vegetable-oil-based substitutes, but watch out for unwanted ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils.
6. Replacements for Sour Cream
Sour cream is made by fermenting milk with bacteria. It’s used as a topping, a base for dips and as a moisture-providing ingredient in baked goods. An ounce (28 grams) of regular sour cream has 54 calories, 1 gram of carbs, 5.5 grams of fat and 0.6 grams of protein (46). Nondairy alternatives on the market are generally soy-based, but there’s at least one soy-free brand out there that’s made from a blend of beans, oils and gums. Some of the alternatives have similar amounts of fat and calories. Others are lighter across the board, with less fat and calories. As with many of the other substitutes, you can make your own nondairy sour cream using cashews, sunflower seeds or tofu. Plain nondairy yogurt is also an easy substitute.
Summary: There are several soy-based sour creams on the market. Plain nondairy yogurt is also a good substitute in most recipes.
7. Substitutes for Ice Cream
A roundup of alternatives to common dairy foods wouldn’t be complete without ice cream. Interestingly, there are several nondairy ice cream options, including:
Creamy ice creams made from nondairy milks, including coconut milk and soy milk.
Sorbets, which never have dairy in them anyway. Don’t confuse these with sherbets, which often have dairy in them.
Homemade ice-cream-like desserts made from blending frozen bananas with other flavorings or berries.
Many of the creamy nondairy desserts are dead ringers for dairy ice cream, delivering the same decadence and creamy mouthfeel.
But since some of them are made from plant-based milks, rather than dairy cream and milk, they are often lower in calories and fat. This isn’t true across the board, so make sure to keep an eye on nutrition labels. The most common kinds on the market are made from soy, almond or coconut milks. You can also find cashew, rice and even avocado ice cream.
Summary: There are many nondairy replacements for ice cream, including creamy ones made from nondairy milk and fruit-based sorbets.
What to Watch out For
With so many nondairy substitutes around, you should be able to find replacements for any nondairy food you need. However, there are a few things to watch out for:
Added sugars: Many nondairy products contain added sugars to enhance flavor and texture. While the sugar content is sometimes similar to that of regular dairy products, other times it can be much higher.
Fillers: It is common for nondairy cheeses and yogurts to use a variety of additives in order to improve the texture of the product. While they aren’t necessarily unhealthy, many people prefer more natural products.
Protein content: Dairy cheeses, milk and yogurt deliver complete protein. However, the only plant-based replacement that mimics that level and quality of protein is soy (47).
Nutrient content: Dairy products deliver potassium and calcium. Fortified nondairy products may also offer these and other micronutrients, depending on the brand. Homemade products won’t be fortified.
Intolerances: Some people have allergies or intolerances to certain ingredients used in nondairy replacements, such as soy or nuts. Fillers, such as inulin, can also be difficult for people to digest, causing gassiness (48).
Price differences: Sad to say, nondairy alternatives often come with a higher price tag. On the other hand, this could be an incentive to make your own nondairy substitutes.
To make sure you get what you’re looking for, read labels to see what ingredients and nutrients are in the product you’re buying.
Summary: There can be a few drawbacks to nondairy substitutes, including potentially longer ingredient lists and differences in nutrient composition.
The Bottom Line
There are many options for substituting common dairy foods. You can make homemade versions of cheese, ice cream, sour cream and more. You can also find them at the grocery store. Most are made from plant-based ingredients, such as soy, nuts or coconut. They’re not necessarily direct substitutes nutritionally, though, so make sure you read the labels.