What do you do when you’ve been diagnosed with a food allergy and your favourite foods are taken away? Fear not! Each month FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, takes a look at how to adapt to an allergen-friendly diet, while still eating delicious and healthy food. This month she explores a variety of non-dairy milk options.
Years ago, if you were allergic to dairy or lactose intolerant you had only a couple of options: soy milk or watery rice milk. If you've consumed either of these, you'll understand why some people gag at the thought of dairy-free milk. 'Cause soy milk and watery rice milk are straight-up gross.
Now that allergen-friendly and vegan options are far more popular and present at the grocery store, there's a wide array of choices. In this month's column, I'm going to walk you through some of the most awesome non-dairy milk options and how you can get on board with making your own.
Why Choose Dairy-Free Milk?
For those of you who have been following these allergen-friendly food columns, you'll know that dairy products can be a very common allergen. Here are a few things to consider:
- Milk is considered a top allergen in Canada, particularly for children.
- Milk may aggravate asthma symptoms. Interestingly, though, there are studies that say raw farm milk has the opposite effect, but raw milk is a discussion for another day!
Milk Allergy Vs. Lactose Intolerance
These aren't the same thing. A milk allergy is an immune reaction to the proteins found in milk, which can lead to allergic reactions from mild swelling or rashes to severe anaphylaxsis (you can grab a list of other names for milk and how to recognize it on a label here). Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the lactose found in milk. Someone who is lactose intolerant might experience some uncomfortable or embarrassing digestive symptoms, but the immune system isn't activated.
Dairy-Free: Should I Make It or Buy It?
Dairy-free milk is so, so, so easy to make at home. All you need are your favourite nuts, seeds or grains and water. Here's my basic dairy-free milk recipe:
- 1 cup of nuts or seeds (almonds, cashews, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
- 2-4 cups of water (depending on how thick and creamy you like your milk)
- Soak your nuts overnight in water (filtered water if you've got it). Drain the nuts, then add to a blender with 2-4 cups of water. Two cups will yield a thick milk, while four will be thinner. Blend.
- There are a few ways to strain your milk:
- Place a very fine sieve over a large bowl, then pour the milk through it. Press down on the nut pulp with the back of a spoon to squeeze all the milk out.
- Line a strainer with a big piece of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Pour the milk through the cheesecloth, then wrap up the pulp in the cheesecloth and squeeze the heck out of it.
- Using a nut milk bag, place the bag into a bowl and pour the milk through it. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.
- Store in the fridge for up to five days, or put it in containers or ice cube trays in the freezer and defrost as needed. Shake before using.
Using this recipe as a base, you can experiment using whatever nuts, seeds or grains (rice, oats, etc.) you love, and also practice flavour alterations. To sweeten your dairy-free milk, blend in honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar or dates (for more about natural sweeteners, check out this guide). You can also toss in cacao or cocoa powder for a chocolate milk, spices such as cinnamon or cardamom for chai, or any fruit to make fruity milk.
I like to soak my nuts and seeds before making nut milk. This helps to release the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors that interfere with vitamin/mineral absorption and digestion. It also makes the milk way easier to blend, especially if your blender has seen better days. Nuts are bigger and usually take six to eight hours, while smaller nuts and seeds are okay with three to four hours of soaking. But if you're short on time, you can soak your nuts in boiling water for 15 minutes to soften them up.
And don't toss out the pulp! Save your pulp and store it in the freezer. Dry it out on a baking sheet and then grind it into a flour. You can use it in baking, as gluten-free bread crumbs, or even toss it into your smoothies for extra fibre. There are some people I know who choose not to strain their dairy-free milk, but I'm not that hard-core. You might not notice the pulp in a smoothie, but you'll definitely know it's there in dairy-free ice cream. So texture-phobic people beware!
My personal favourite dairy-free milk is coconut milk. It's incredibly rich and creamy, offers so many amazing health benefits and can even be made at home. Of course, dairy-free milk preferences are unique to all of us, so I invite you to experiment and see what you love.
However, I certainly understand that there are some of you out there who are never going to make your own dairy-free milk at home. It can get messy and doesn't last as long in the fridge as store-bought versions. Here are a few things to look out for when purchasing store-bought non-dairy milk:
- Check labels for added sugars. Some dairy-free milks are loaded with sugar. Choose an unsweetened version; most brands have them.
- Ensure there are no other allergens in the dairy-free milk, such as gluten or wheat. Some brands might use barley malt or another glutenous grain.
- Opt for brands that don't use carrageenan as a thickener, as it can induce intestinal inflammation. Also, keep an eye out for any unnecessary chemical additives or preservatives.
- Remember that dairy-free milk doesn't last indefinitely! Once you open the carton, it begins to spoil. It will definitely last longer than dairy-based milks, but don't leave it languishing in your fridge for three months.
- Many dairy-free milks are fortified with vitamins and minerals; however, the forms of these vitamins are not always easy for us to absorb. Consuming fortified dairy-free milk doesn't replace a good diet.
What About Calcium?
You might be wondering how it's possible to consume enough calcium without dairy milk.
Let me ask you this: where do cows get their calcium from? Answer: plants! Cows graze on grass — they don't drink milk or eat cheese. There are a ton of plant-based sources of calcium that are easier for us to digest and absorb, including:
- Sesame seeds
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens, beet greens, etc.)
- Sea vegetables (dulse, kelp, kombu, nori, etc.)
- Brazil nuts
- Kidney beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Blackstrap molasses
When considering your source of calcium, it's not solely about how much calcium is in a particular food. It's also about the other vitamins and minerals found in that food, and our ability to absorb that calcium. For example, cow's milk is high in calcium but it's also high in the mineral phosphorus, which binds to calcium and prevents it from being absorbed. And we can't forget about how many of us lack the enzyme needed to digest milk, as mentioned above.
How to Use Your Dairy-Free Milks
There isn't any reason why you can't substitute dairy-free milk anywhere you'd normally use dairy-based milk. My typical substitution ratio is 1:1. Non-dairy milks are amazing in:
- Smoothies. You can use dairy-free milk in its liquid form, or try freezing it in ice cubes to give your smoothies that frozen, creamy texture.
- Dairy-Free Pasta Sauce. There are many ways to make dairy-free cream sauces, but cashew milk and coconut milk are especially handy.
- Dairy-Free Ice Cream. Coconut milk is my all-time ice cream fave, but you can use any dairy-free milk you prefer.
- Dairy-Free Chocolate. Non-dairy milk is fabulous in hot chocolate, too.
- Soups and stews, to thicken.
- Dips and Spreads.
- Baked goods. Whether you're making cookies, muffins, breads, pies or tarts, plant-based milk is a great stand-in for cow's milk.
- Cereals or porridge. You'll never know the difference!
- Cooked gluten-free grains. Add a bit of extra nutrition by cooking your grains with dairy-free milk.
- Fermented projects. Use a thick dairy-free milk to make dairy-free yogourt or dairy-free kefir.
- Dairy-Free Buttermilk. Mix 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar or white vinegar with 1 cup of dairy-free milk and let it curdle. This will take several minutes.
One of the biggest challenges with using dairy-free milks is overcoming the mental barrier that they are somehow inferior to "regular'"milk. Nothing could be further from the truth! Plant-based milks are incredibly versatile and tasty, and are less likely to make you bloated or cause raging diarrhea. Can't beat that bonus!
How do you like to use dairy-free milks in your everyday cooking? Please share in the comments!
Check out more of Sondi’s Allergen-Friendly Guides and Recipe Remixes for great ideas on revamping your favourite recipes to make them allergen friendly!
- Your Complete Guide to Using Coconut in Your Cooking
- A Guide to Using Dried Beans
- Gingerbread Cookies
- Side Dishes
Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer and food blogger. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com. Or you can follow Sondi on Facebook or Twitter.