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What was once a simple decision between whole, low-fat, or skim milk, the list of choices now has a variety so vast, it’s dizzying. Whether made from nuts, seeds, legumes, or grains, plant-based milk has skyrocketed in popularity. Cow’s milk still tops retail sales, but nondairy “milk” brought in nearly $3 billion dollars last year, reflecting a 54 percent growth in the last five years, according to a report from Mintel market research. Clearly, there is huge demand, as people are turning to alternative milk for reasons like dietary restriction, allergy or intolerance, health, environment, ethics, or just personal preference. Many, but not all of these, can be good alternatives to cow’s milk, but the best choice depends on your individual needs and preferences.
For nutrition information, review the milk alternatives comparison chart.
Although relatively new to some of us, nondairy milk dates back to ancient times, consumed by different cultures all over the globe. The most familiar might be soymilk, almond milk, and coconut milk, as they are the oldest and most common today. Competition between the milk cartons now includes cashew, hemp, quinoa, macadamia, flax, pea, and many more. They are made from nuts, seeds, legumes, or grains that have been soaked, ground, blended with water and strained. Flavors (which may mean added sugars), vitamins and minerals, and other ingredients, like thickeners and stabilizers are sometimes added in manufactured plant-based milk. They are also simple to make at home.
When deciding between types of milk, whether dairy or non-dairy, consider the role of milk in your diet and lifestyle. Do you use a cup a day for cereal, with a snack, in cooking or baking? Or do you just need a splash in your coffee each morning? If it’s a decent part of your diet, a nutrient-rich option makes sense, especially if you’re making the switch from dairy to non-dairy. Be aware that cow’s milk is rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, notably calcium, and is fortified with vitamin D. Dairy milk alternatives don’t always compare, but they can if you choose carefully.
Each plant milk is different, even between brands, so reading the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts label is essential. Rule out any options that risk allergy or intolerances to ingredients like nuts, soy, or gluten. The healthiest options have no added sugars, so try to choose unsweetened versions. Plant milk tends to be naturally sweet anyway. Check the ingredients list and the Nutrition Facts label next to “added sugars.” Most plant milk has natural sugars, but less than cow’s milk. The ingredients list will also alert you to any other undesirable ingredients, such as flavors and additives. As for nutrition, look for a good source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Dairy milk contains about 7-8 grams of protein per cup, so you might choose a non-dairy milk with a comparable amount. Many are fortified with protein, calcium, and vitamin D as well. Most plant milk contains a comparable amount of calcium to cow’s milk—about 300-450 milligrams per cup. As for vitamin D, aim for 25 percent of the Daily Value.
The best-tasting milk alternative is more than likely going to vary among palates. Of course, the taste is highly subjective, so you will truly have to experiment with types of plant milk, as well as brands. You’ll also want to consider how you plan to use your milk alternative. If you are replacing dairy milk and plant to drink it straight, with cereal, or in your coffee, choose one that suits that role and that you really enjoy. Soymilk, almond milk, and oat milk have been popular dairy milk replacements. If you’re using it in smoothies, cooking, and baking, then the flavor is less of an issue, and a subtle, more neutral option, like rice milk or flax milk may be best. Do try kinds of milk made from the plant foods you love, like coconut, walnut, or oat, as you will taste the ingredients in these kinds of milk.
Milk Alternatives Comparison Chart
Use this sampling of popular milk options to help you choose the best milk or milk substitute for you.
|Milk Alternatives Nutrition Chart|
|Type of Milk, 1 cup|| |
Vitamin D (g)
|Dairy Milk 1% milkfat||2||325||8||12||12||2.5||130|
|Pea Protein Milk||6||440||8||5-6||Less than 1||4.5||80|