I've been dairy-free for eight years. Years ago, I started experiencing persistent “digestive discomfort” and exhaustion after every meal that would last for days.
After exploring numerous alternatives with GI specialists, nutritionists, and allergists, I found that by eliminating gluten and dairy (and strangely also onions and almonds), my symptoms improved dramatically, and I've never looked back!
Did you know that about 75 percent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant (including about 25 percent of Americans)? Whether it’s due to a preference or a diagnosed medical need, many people are thinking of cutting out dairy.
Dairy consumption can cause a range of symptoms including digestive discomfort, bloating, and an increase in mucus production (which is especially relevant during flu season!).
That’s not to say that everyone should cut out dairy. Dairy contains nutrients like protein, fat, and of course calcium, and the type of dairy as well as each person’s physiological constitution also makes a difference. Do what's right for your body and your lifestyle.
If you are avoiding dairy, here are some substitution options (and my personal favorites) for common dairy products:
Rather Than Milk...
There are a number of milk alternatives out there, including almond, soy, coconut, rice, hemp, cashew, and flax milks. That’s a long list!
Of those, the ones with the strongest flavor are almond, soy, and hemp milk. Almond and coconut milk usually have a sweeter flavor. Rice milk has a thinner consistency and, along with flax milk, has the mildest flavor.
Whichever milk you choose, I would recommend looking for the unsweetened variety, as the “original” flavors are often already sweetened, almost to be point of dessert-level sweetness.
Instead of Cream...
In Place of Ice Cream...
Most grocery stores now stock nondairy ice creams made from soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk. These have increasingly improved in texture and taste over the years. My favorite is soy ice cream from Purely Decadent.
You can make your own ice cream from those milks or cashew cream.
To Replace Butter...
Two words: Smart Balance. This is by far the best brand out there for nondairy butter substitutes. The flavor and texture comes pretty close to the real thing.
If you’re looking to replace butter in cooking (rather than as a spread or in a dessert recipe), you might also consider replacing the butter in your recipe with oil (my favorite is coconut oil). Most non-dessert recipes do fine with a one-to-one swap of butter for oil.
Some people who are allergic or intolerant to dairy say they can have ghee, which is clarified butter, often used in Indian recipes. I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet, but let me know whether you can tolerate it in the comments below.
For Cream Cheese...
Unfortunately there just aren’t many spot-on cream cheese alternatives out there (at least that I’ve found in my eight years of being dairy-free). Daiya recently launched its own brand of nondairy cream cheese, which comes pretty close.
You can try making your own with a recipe like this one made using raw cashews, but it’s a bit of a process to undertake.
Alternatives for Cheese...
This one holds a special place in my heart because cheese is the thing I miss most about being dairy-free. There are some good cheese alternatives on the market now, but that phrase always has to be qualified with “for a nondairy alternative.”
My approach has been to just appreciate the flavors and textures of these nondairy cheeses for what they are rather than as a comparison to regular cheese. They just don’t compare.
That being said, you can, of course, try your hand at making nondairy cheese. My favorite base ingredient is cashews, although you can also use almonds or tofu.
In many products and recipes, the ingredient that creates that cheesy flavor is nutritional yeast, like in this recipe for dairy-free buffalo mozzarella.
Other Than Yogurt...
Soy yogurt is probably the most common dairy-free store-bought yogurt available, followed by coconut.
You can also get adventurous and make your own with your favorite dairy-free milk, chia seeds, or by blending some soft tofu until it gets to the consistency you want.
And Finally, Chocolate...
Most forms of chocolate contain milk or milk fat (yes, even dark chocolate), so be sure to check the ingredients list of any form of chocolate you buy.
Cocoa butter, however, is okay (it has nothing to do with dairy; it’s just the fat extracted from the cocoa bean). Some of my favorite nondairy chocolate fixes are here.
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