Drinking milk from a cow seems like a thing of the past these days. Whether it’s a true milk allergy, lactose intolerance, a vegan diet, wanting to be more like that celebrity who only drinks almond milk, or because the doc said it’s bad—there are plenty of reasons people are going dairy-free.
Trendy or not, if cow's milk doesn't work for you, you're in luck because there has been an explosion of “milked” nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains in the past couple of years. As a registered dietitian, I’m not a dairy fanatic but I’m also not against it. I happily enjoy my two-percent plain Greek yogurt each morning but have gravitated toward using unsweetened almond milk in my coffee. But with more milk alternatives popping up, I can see why decisions in the milk aisle might be tough!
So whether you’re intolerant to dairy or you’re hedging your bets and want to live a more plant-based lifestyle, let’s dive into the most popular alternative milks on the market and what to look out for when you're shopping. Because, really, we don't need one more overwhelming decision to make when it comes to our health.
What to Look for in Alternative Milks
While I wish I could give you a black-and-white answer, the truth is, which milk you choose depends on a number of different factors—and sorry to say it, but there’s really no “best choice,” as they each offer something different when it comes to taste and nutritional. Whether you’re looking for a product to help boost your overall protein intake, help keep you in ketosis, or you want another way to reduce your carbon footprint, there’s a “milked” option for just about everyone. But before we talk about the different types, here are a few things to consider as you’re perusing the aisles or sitting on your couch, ordering Amazon Fresh.
1. Added Sugar
If sugar is one of the first three ingredients listed on the nutritional label, I’d stop right there. This one always baffles me because most of these milks taste just fine without added sugar, so why put it in there? Most alternative milks come with an unsweetened option, so always opt for that.
2. Too Many Additives
It's hard to find an alternative milk that doesn't have any additives. And some of those hard-to-pronounce additives aren't as scary as they sound. But it's a best practice to look for brands with fewer ingredients.
There has been a lot of discussion around carrageenan, a thickener and stabilizer in tons of foods and beverages, lately. It’s been a controversial topic due to some reports of its pro-inflammatory and potentially toxic effects on the gut. There is preliminary science on both sides of this argument, which means, yup, we really don’t know what’s what just yet. But many companies have opted to drop it in favor of other alternatives like guar gum, gellan gum, and tapioca starch, all of which serve to give alternative milks a thicker and creamier texture.
Though more thorough studies are needed to determine if it's really harmful, I prefer to look for carrageenan-free. While it doesn’t appear to be harmful to most individuals, there are people who believe they do have a true sensitivity to it and fare better without. My recommendation is to choose a product without it if possible, but don't make yourself crazy, especially if you haven't noticed any negative side effects after drinking alternative milks.
Most nondairy milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B12, which is a good thing, but it’s not true for all brands, and the amounts can vary widely. Read labels carefully and be sure you’re getting these nutrients from other food sources too.
Most of the "cleaner" plant-based milks (a.k.a. the ones that don't have a long shelf life because they don't contain a ton of additives) tend to have a higher price point. I'm going to leave this decision up to you, but I just want to prevent you from suffering from sticker shock. I could also say, "Save a buck and make your own!" but nuts are expensive, and time is precious! So, you do you when it comes to how much money and time you want to spend on your alternative milk obsession.
Now, let's break down the differences among your options.
Soy was one of the first alternative milks to gain popularity. Of all the alternatives, soy is most similar to cow's milk when comparing nutrition labels, particularly in its protein and calcium content. Some consumers might be wary of soy products due to their phytoestrogen and GMO content, but there aren't enough conclusive studies to suggest that people should avoid soy completely. Soy is full of isoflavones, which may be protective against certain health issues like cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Verdict: If I'm drinking soy milk, I always opt for organic, but I also look for carrageenan-free. This used to be my go-to choice, but sorry, soy milk, I'm enjoying almond more these days.
Hemp milk hasn't really stolen the spotlight like some other milks have (we see you, oat milk). But it is made from cannabis seeds, so TBD if this milk will have a moment like all of the other cannabis-based products out there. The upside of this milk is it is a great source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fat and packs in some protein (about 2 to 3 grams per cup). It's also usually made with sugar since the taste, if you ask me, is less than appetizing. Whatever you imagined hemp milk to taste like, it’s probably worse.
Verdict: It's a great option for anyone looking for a vegan-friendly, allergy-friendly, and omega-3 rich nutritional option... if you can stomach the taste. But maybe that's just me.
Similar to hemp, rice milk has been around for a while, but it's not really stepping up as the next star at your local coffee shop. Where rice milk does shine: It's an easy one to drink for people with any soy, nut, or gluten allergies.
Verdict: Its sugar content is typically higher than cow's milk, it's rather low in protein, and the taste is a bit watery and sweet, but hey, if you've got allergies, this one is a good choice.
Of the plant-based milks out there, coconut is the highest in saturated fat with zero in the protein department. But if you're adding protein in other ways, this is a good one because it's one of the more allergy-friendly options for those intolerant to dairy, soy, or nuts (coconut is considered a fruit, not a nut).
Verdict: Coconut is typically lower in sugar and calories and not a bad option if you’re into the taste. And for you keto fans out there, coconut milk is a source of those precious MCTs (medium chain triglycerides). If you don’t know 'em, MCTs have been touted for their ability to be rapidly absorbed by the body and more readily used as fuel than other types of fat. Which means we store less and use more—and since the ketogenic diet is a very high-fat diet overall, this type of fat is coveted by those who are on it.
Pea Protein Milk
One of the newer kids on the block is pea milk, and Ripple seems to be the hot brand out there. And with it's original and unsweetened versions, the company may be onto something. This milk is comparable to low-fat cow’s milk in its calorie, protein, and fat content but is superior in that the sugar clocks in at 6 or fewer grams per cup.
Verdict: I think pea-based milk is a solid option if you miss your cow's milk. Taste-wise, it’s pretty mild with a similar texture to dairy, making it a very acceptable substitute.
This sh*t is so popular there’s actually a shortage right now. Coffee shops are catching on to the demand, with the exception of Starbucks, and offering this guy for your morning latte. Besides the fact that it’s delicious, it boasts a higher protein content than most of the plant-based options. It’s also a higher source of fiber than other alternative milks, so if you can find it, give it a try.
Verdict: Oat milk is so creamy, so this is an excellent choice when you're looking for a latte that resembles the two-percent milk ones of your past. It's also naturally sweet so the sugar content is a bit higher, but for this kind of creaminess, it might be worth it.
So they’ve officially milked every nut there is, and if they haven’t, it’s merely a matter of time. Each nut has its own unique vitamin and mineral profile, but they all share pretty similar macronutrient profiles: relatively low in calories and carbohydrates, little protein, and moderate fat content. Almond milk (the OG of the nut milks) also happens to be a great natural source of calcium.
Verdict: When it comes to taste, some nut milks might taste a little watered down/nothing like the nut they are made with, which brings us to the previous point: Look for brands with fewer additives! One of my favorite brands is Elmhurst. It just launched a line of unsweetened milks where the ingredient list is only the featured nut (and they milk all of them) and water. Let's just say, I’m definitely making my hot chocolate with walnut milk from now on.