Although cow’s milk is by far the most popular type of milk, in recent years cow’s milk alternatives have become more widely used. There are several reasons why consumers look for alternatives. Firstly, many people are allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk but can tolerate goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. Secondly, as the number of vegans globally increases, many are seeking plant-based alternatives as dairy replacements. The primary alternatives to conventional milk fall into two categories; animal alternatives and plant-based alternatives.

Alternative production animals

Allergies to cow’s milk, and lactose intolerance, are fairly common. People who are allergic to milk are usually allergic to a milk protein called casein. Dairy intolerance is caused by the inability to digest lactose, or milk sugars. Those with milk allergies can drink goat’s milk or sheep’s milk since it has an A2 casein, which is less allergenic than the A1 casein found in cow’s milk, while lactose intolerant people need to choose plant-based milk alternatives.

Milk goats

Not all goat breeds are suitable for milk production on a commercial scale, but there are several breeds that produce good volumes of milk. Some of the better-known breeds include Saanen, Toggenburg, British Alpine and Bunde Deutsche Edelziege (BDE) goats.

One of the reasons goat’s milk is easier to digest is because the fat globules are smaller than those in cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is also lower in lactose sugars, which makes digestion easier for some people. The A2 type of casein protein is less inflammatory and closer to the proteins found in human breast milk that the human body is specifically designed to handle. Although goat’s milk is higher in fat, it contains more healthy types of fat, namely medium-chain triglycerides. Goat’s milk is higher in calcium, zinc and selenium than cow’s milk.  Many of the nutrients in goat’s milk (calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus) are more bioavailable, and therefore more easily absorbed.

Goat’s milk is naturally homogenised whereas cow’s milk needs to be forcibly homogenised, adding an extra step to the processing. This means that the fat molecules are small enough to stay suspended in the milk, making it easier to digest. Goat’s milk is often fermented to make a health beverage known as kefir, which is high in probiotics.

Milk sheep

Like goats, any breed of sheep can be milked, but milking sheep is unlikely to be profitable for commercial milk production. Specific breeds with higher milk production include the East Friesian and Lacaune sheep. The British milk sheep is the result of crossing several breeds with the East Friesian sheep. In South Africa the SA Milk Sheep was bred by crossing the East Friesian with some of the indigenous breeds (Afrino, Fattail Afrikaner and Merino Landskaap).

Sheep’s milk makes up a little over 1% of the world’s total milk production and is most popular in Mediterranean countries. Most sheep’s milk is used to make cheese, but it is also used as a milk replacement. Although sheep’s milk is not widely available in South Africa, it is worth having a look at the benefits this milk has to offer.

Sheep’s milk and goat’s milk are both easier to digest because of the A2 casein in the milk and the natural homogenisation. Sheep’s milk has a similar nutrient profile to goat’s milk, containing high amounts of calcium and healthy fats, but it is higher in vitamin B12, vitamin C, folate and magnesium than cow’s milk or goat’s milk. It has a higher cream content than any other type of dairy, hence its popularity in cheese making.  Sheep’s milk is also used in baby formula milk because of its similarity to human breast milk.

Plant based alternatives

According to the Dairy Reporter, sales of dairy alternative beverages have been taking a growing percentage of the market share for the past 17 years. This is in line with increasing numbers of vegans and health fanatics. Vegans do not eat animal products because of their concerns about animal welfare, and about the carbon footprint of dairy production. The health benefits of dairy have been scrutinised by such groups in recent years.

The market for dairy alternatives was valued at US$7.37 billion in 2016 and is predicted to peak at about US$14.136 billion in 2022. In the past decade, plant-based milk has become a common sight in mainstream supermarkets. Soya milk still dominates the plant-based alternative markets, but various other alternatives have also made a mark. These alternatives fall into four categories:


Soya: Soya milk is extracted from soya beans. It is sold as sweetened, unsweetened and flavoured, such as the chocolate variety. Soya milk is not suitable for those with soya allergies.

Pea: Although not as popular as soya milk, peas are also used to make a dairy alternative beverage; pea protein-based milk is slowly taking over the health food scene, with a one-cup serving delivering the same amount of protein as cow’s milk.

Nuts and coconuts

Almond: This is by far the most popular of the nut milks, but other nuts such as macadamia are also used. Almond milk is made from ground almonds and water. Sweetened and unsweetened varieties are available. This milk is not suitable for those with nut allergies.

Coconut: Coconut milk is made from fresh grated coconut flesh and is sold in a carton. It is not the same as the coconut milk sold in a can, which is extremely calorie-dense and mostly used for cooking.


Rice: Rice milk is made by pressing boiled rice through a mill using diffusion to strain out the pressed grains. It may be made at home using rice flour and brown rice protein, or by boiling brown rice with a large volume of water and then blending and straining the mixture.

Oats: Oats is the newest grain to be added to the plant-based list of dairy alternatives and is quickly gaining popularity. According to trend forecasts, demand is likely to outpace that of other plant-based dairy alternatives.


Hemp: Hemp seed milk is made from hulled hemp seeds and water. Sweetened and unsweetened varieties are available.

Flax: Flax seed (also known as linseed) milk is not as commonly seen. It is a little thinner and sweeter than most plant-based alternatives.

Alternative recipes

Below are two recipes that use alternative milks. The first is a vegan version of white sauce (bechamel), and the second makes use of goat kefir to make a healthy smoothie.

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Vegan bechamel sauce

You do not have to go without your favourite dairy-based sauces if you follow a vegan diet. Below is an easy way to replace the butter and milk usually used in a bechamel sauce, which is commonly used in pastas or as a base for cream soup.


¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons white flour

2½ cups plant-based milk

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat the oil in a small saucepan over a low heat. Add the flour and combine. Add the plant-based milk slowly while stirring continuously. Cook the sauce to the desired thickness. Add salt and pepper to taste.


Kefir smoothie


Smoothies are the easiest way to combine healthy ingredients such as kefir and fruit. Try this smoothie for a power breakfast that takes seconds to prepare. Use any fruit you prefer.


1 cup milk kefir

½ cup fresh fruit

½ cup frozen fruit

Sweetener as desired


Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

If dairy is your thing, click here to read more about the agroprocessing of cow’s milk in our weekly in-depth article.Ursula Human, Farm fare