Plant-based milk alternatives, aka nondairy “milks,” are everywhere. Should you swap them for the cow’s milk in your grocery cart or in your morning latte? That depends. Some people choose milk alternatives because they don’t consume animal foods or because they have a milk allergy or are intolerant to lactose, the natural sugar in milk. However, others reach for nondairy options because they believe they are healthier than cow’s milk. That’s not necessarily true.
The six most popular plant-based milks are almond, oat, soy, coconut, pea and rice. They’re made by soaking the main ingredient then pressing out and straining the liquid, and don’t necessarily contain the same nutrients as cow’s milk, which is naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins. Whole milk naturally contains vitamin A, an essential fat-soluble vitamin, while low-fat and skim milks are typically vitamin A-fortified. Most brands of cow’s milk are also fortified with vitamin D, which is challenging to get naturally from food.
Many plant-based milks are fortified to mimic the nutritional profile of cow’s milk, but many others are not, so they lack the essential nutrients needed to make them an even trade, nutritionally, with cow’s milk. Plus, sweetened versions of any milk — dairy or nondairy — contain added sugar. Most people who consume plant-based milks also consume dairy, but if you can’t — or don’t — consume dairy at all yet want the nutrition of cow’s milk, soy milk may be your best alternative. When fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D, it’s the only nondairy milk that is comparable to cow’s milk in terms of nutrients.
If you’re also not a fan of soy milk, read the nutrition facts panel of your preferred milk to make sure you’re getting calcium and other essential nutrients — or be conscientious about those nutrients from other foods. Here are some other best nondairy bets for specific needs:
- If you’re prioritizing protein: Pea milk — made from yellow peas — or soy milk are your best options, with protein levels comparable to the 8 grams per cup in cow’s milk. Oat milk has about 3 grams per cup, while almond, coconut and rice milks have a paltry 1 gram or less per cup.
- If you’re avoiding saturated fat: Low-fat and skim versions of dairy milk contain little saturated fat, and so do almond, oat, pea, soy and rice milks. Coconut milk beverages, however, have about the same saturated fat content as whole cow’s milk.
- If you want something lower in calories: Maybe you just want a liquid to add to your smoothie that’s tastier than water and isn’t juice. Unsweetened almond milk has a nutty flavor and about 37 calories per cup.
- If you want something sustainable: Soy grown for soy milk has the lowest water usage, while almonds have the highest water usage and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions. Rice grown for beverages uses the least land but uses more water than most nondairy milks.
A little more food for thought:
- Avoid almond milk if you have a nut allergy and avoid soy milk if you’re allergic to soybeans.
- One cup of oat milk boasts 2 grams of fiber per cup, but that’s about half the fiber in a cup of actual cooked oatmeal.
- Rice milk has little to offer nutritionally when compared to dairy and other nondairy milks.
- Cow’s milk is a single-ingredient, minimally processed food. Nondairy milks are processed and almost always contain multiple ingredients.