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Milk used to be simple. Your mom went to the store, bought a carton, and then plunked down a tall glass right next to your chocolate chip cookies. Nowadays, mom might find the choices downright bewildering: lactose-free milk, nondairy beverages such as soy, rice, and almond milks -- even oat, multigrain, or hemp milk.

These alternatives have hit the store shelves, but why choose them? The reasons are many.

  • People buy lactose-free milk because symptoms of lactose intolerance have soured them on regular cow’s milk.
  • People with true milk allergies, which is quite different than lactose intolerance, can’t drink cow’s milk at all, so they turn to plant-based milks to get their nutrition.
  • Vegans don't eat any dairy products from animals.
  • Soy, rice, and almond milk contain no cholesterol because they’re plant-based, so they can be a healthy choice for people trying to reduce cholesterol consumption.

But that doesn’t mean cow’s milk is bad. Cow’s milk, including lactose-free cow's milk, offers strong benefits, says Karen Ansel, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “In addition to having a lot of calcium and vitamin D -- which are really important and we don’t get enough of -- cow’s milk is a really great source of protein.”

Milk Alternatives for Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance occurs when you don’t make enough of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the sugar in milk -- lactose, Ansel says. When the sugar stays undigested, you may have symptoms such as diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

Buying lactose-free cow's milk is just one way to help reduce symptoms. Milk companies treat these milks with lactase so that the milk sugar is completely broken down, she says. Nutritionally, lactose-free cow's milk is comparable to regular cow’s milk.

Another option is to buy lactose-free nondairy milk options, such as almond, hemp, multigrain, oat, rice, or soy.