Your decision to switch from cow’s milk to plant-based milk seemed easy…until you found yourself standing in a supermarket aisle (or multiple aisles!) overwhelmed by how many choices there are. All those different plant-based milk cartons taking over the shelves and refrigerator cases leave you with questions rather than answers. Which one is the healthiest choice, and which one the best-tasting—and do you have to sacrifice one for the other?
That’s exactly what researchers at McGill University, Montreal, decided to find out. They looked at how four of the most popular nondairy alternatives stacked up, ounce for ounce, to an eight-ounce glass of whole cow’s milk with its 158 calories, 9 grams (g) of fat, 8.1 g of protein, 11.5 g of carbs and 294 milligrams (mg) of calcium. They compared several different brands within each category, all unsweetened and, like cow’s milk, vitamin D-fortified. In this Bottom Line article, we’re going to help you understand nine different kinds of plant milk, but let’s start with the four kinds that these researchers studied…
Soy milk: Nutritionally, at least, this early entry among milk alternatives came out the winner. Its protein content is comparable to cow’s milk with fewer calories overall (95) and less fat (4.5 g). Plus it gives you 330 mg of added bone-building calcium (about one-third of the RDA), B vitamins, potassium and some fiber (cow’s milk—as well as many other plant-based milks—doesn’t have any). Soy milk also is rich in isoflavones, which may help fight cancer. The downside: Some people just don’t like soy milk’s soybeany flavor, and soy allergies are common, especially in children.
Almond milk: This is the most popular kind of plant-based milk in the US—probably because of its pleasingly nutty flavor. If you’re trying to limit calories, it has the fewest, just 35 in an eight-ounce serving. Most of those calories come from almond milk’s 2.5 g of heart-healthy unsaturated fat, the kind that may reduce levels of LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol. A serving has only 1 g of protein but the same calcium content as soy milk plus 1 g of fiber. The downside: If you’re allergic to tree nuts, you probably need to steer clear of almond milk and its many flavor combos. Also, if you’re looking for a milk that will supply a good amount of protein, this isn’t it. Note: Almond and other nut milks have low calorie counts because they’re mostly water—a serving is not comparable to the nutrients in a handful of nuts or to the high calorie content of nuts (between 150 and 200 per ounce).
Rice milk: This is obviously a nondairy option to consider if you’re allergic to soy or nuts. But sweet-tasting rice milk is high in carbohydrates—read, sugar—at 26 g per serving, more than double what’s in cow’s milk, and that’s where most of its 130 calories come from. (You can find unsweetened rice milk, which has about the same carb content as dairy milk.) Its fat and protein contents mirror almond milk, but it has less calcium than almond or soy milk. The downside: The sugar. If you follow a low-carb eating plan, you’ll use up most, if not all, of your daily allotment on just one glass of rice milk.
Coconut milk: This beverage scores high for many people because of its pleasant coconutty taste and the fact that it’s low-calorie (45). It has 1 g of fiber and about 8 g of carbs, but no protein. Most of the calories come from saturated fat (4.5 g), though that’s still about half the fat of whole milk. Also, coconut fat contains lauric acid, which raises HDL—the good cholesterol—and reduces LDL. The downside: The lack of protein. Important: If you decide to drink coconut milk for its taste and low-sugar content, look for a coconut milk beverage, not the very-high-fat canned coconut milks meant for cooking.
EVEN MORE PLANT-BASED MILKS
Research done at the University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, dove even deeper into the many choices of milk alternatives fortified with calcium and vitamin D including…
Pea milk: One of the newest plant milks on the market, this is made with yellow split peas. Like soy, peas are a protein-rich legume, and the milk’s protein content is comparable to that of cow’s milk. Eight ounces have 70 calories and 4.5 g of total fat. Pea milk has a creamy consistency and taste similar to that of whole cow’s milk. It’s typically fortified with potassium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. The downside: Currently only one national company, Ripple, makes it, so it could be harder to find than other milk types.
Cashew milk: Another nut-based milk, most of its 60 calories come from carbs and unsaturated fat. Some people find that cashew milk tastes more creamy and less nutty than almond milk and like that. The downside: Cashew milk has a scant gram of protein.
Oat milk: Made from oats that have been toasted and hulled, this milk contains about half the protein of cow’s milk (4 g) and about twice the carbs (24 g). It’s relatively high in calories (130) compared with some other nondairy choices, with 20 coming from fat, but it also has 2 g or 3 g of fiber and a slightly sweet taste. The downside: Oat milk’s consistency is similar to that of reduced-fat milk, meaning that it’s a little watery—a matter of personal taste.
Hemp milk: This is made from seeds of the hemp plant, the same one that produces marijuana. But you won’t get any buzz at all from drinking it—there’s only a negligible trace of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in the milk. (And for that reason, hemp milk is entirely legal everywhere in the country.) Hemp milk has 2 g or 3 g of protein per serving and, depending on the brand, between 70 and 100 calories, most from its unsaturated fat. The downside: Hemp milk’s taste often is described as earthy—some people like it, but many don’t.
Flax milk: Another seed-based milk, a serving can have as few as 24 calories depending on the brand, from its 2.5 g of fat and 1 g of carbohydrate. The down side: Flax milk lacks the fiber of flaxseeds and has no protein, but does have added omega-3 fatty acids in addition to calcium and vitamin D.
THE TASTE TEST
Your personal preferences and nutritional needs should help you narrow down your selection. And you might be able to have your cake and eat it, too, because some manufacturers are now offering plant milks made from nuts such as cashews and almonds plus coconut, oats, flaxseeds or peas to enhance flavor and the nutrient profile (see above).
Smart way to approach choosing: Think about what aspect of cow’s milk you have tended to depend on in your diet. For example, if you depended on cow’s milk for its protein, look first at soy or pea milk because they are relatively high in protein. If all you want is a low-calorie milk substitute for your cereal, tea or coffee, one of the nut milks may be your best bet.
Depending on the brand you buy, your choice can help you reach calcium, vitamin A and D, and other nutrient goals. Note that fortification can differ even among milks made by the same manufacturer, so read labels carefully. Many—but not all—plant-based milks now actually have more calcium than cow’s milk, though it’s uncertain whether the body uses added calcium (and the other added vitamins and minerals) as efficiently as it does the calcium naturally found in milk.
Smart tip: Added calcium can sink to the bottom of a container of plant milk. If the label instructs you to shake the container before pouring, that’s why.
Also, in 2016, the FDA made it easier to get vitamin D from all types of milks, increasing the limit to 205 international units (IU) per eight ounces, meaning that you could reach the RDA with three servings. But that doesn’t mean that all manufacturers are adding the maximum amount.
While you’re comparing nutrition labels, also look for less desirable ingredients, such as added sugar, which can double the calories of, say, almond milk. You also might see stabilizers and thickeners such as lecithin, an allergen for some people, or carrageenan, which some people find hard to digest. And while plant-based milks are gluten-free, read the fine print carefully to see if there’s any possibility of cross-contamination during the manufacturing process. But you’ll have enough choices to find a milk you genuinely like and avoid any unwanted ingredients—that’s the upside of those confusingly crowded shelves!
Interested in a dairy-based alternative to cow’s milk? Read about some surprising choices here.