Whether you choose to drink nondairy milks for health reasons or environmental concerns, you have a handful of options to choose from. From dependable ol' soy milk to its flashy cousin, hemp milk, the array of plant-based milks offers something for all taste buds and health needs.
Maria Sylvester Terry, a registered dietitian at Eat Fit NOLA, shares her thoughts on 10 (10!) different plant-based milks you can try as an alternative to dairy milk.
"If someone's looking for a dairy milk substitute, soy milk is the plant-based option that is the closest," Terry says. "Soy is an incredible food that naturally contains numerous nutrients, whereas other plant-based milks may need additional enrichment of vitamins and minerals."
Plus, soy milk is one of the most widely available and it's a budget-friendly milk alternative, so it's accessible for more people.
Almond milk is everywhere. I'd venture to guess that it's used just as much, if not more, than soy milk these days. "Due to its status as the go-to plant-based milk, you'll find it everywhere, from coffee shops to corner stores to wholesale grocery stores," Terry says, which makes almond milk one of the best plant-based milks simply because it's so accessible.
Almond milk contains omega-3 fatty acids that are important for heart health, as well as the antioxidant vitamin E.
It's naturally low in sugar.
It's a fairly versatile and accessible option that's available in a variety of flavors.
Despite almonds themselves being a nutritious whole food with protein and fat, almond milk is not considered a source of protein, Terry says. This is because almonds are stripped of many of their nutrients during the "milking" process.
If you're looking to replace calcium-rich dairy milk with almond milk, you'll want to ensure you're getting calcium in your diet from other foods.
Check the label for additives and gums. "These are nothing to be fearful of -- they're used to thicken and emulsify -- but some may avoid gums and additives if they have adverse reactions, such as gastrointestinal distress," Terry says.
While some people love the flavor and thick texture, other people find it a turn-off. Luckily, you can try several different brands and flavors to find one you like, or just choose another plant milk. Clearly, they're plentiful!
Oats are a nutritious food, but drinking oat milk shouldn't be equated with eating whole oats. Some of the nutrients are lost in processing, Terry says.
This is a "versatile plant-based option with a creamy texture," according to Terry, and its price is on par with almond milk. It's also available in most grocery stores. Cashew milk has a nuttier taste than most plant-based milks and it's rather sweet. If you prefer a subtler taste, cashew milk might not be the right choice for you.
Homemade cashew milk packs 20% of your daily needs of magnesium, it's rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and it contains potassium. This lineup of nutrients is important for heart health.
Some store-bought varieties contain more calcium than dairy milk.
There can be a big difference in nutritional profiles between store-bought cashew milk and homemade, Terry says. Homemade varieties are usually higher in fiber, protein and fat.
Store-bought cashew milk may be lower in calories than homemade cashew milk, but it may also have less protein and healthy fats.
Cashew milk is not a good dairy replacement if you're looking for plant-based milk with high protein content.
Because macadamia milk has a "more balanced flavor compared to other nut milks, it could be used on a more frequent basis and in various foods and beverages, " Terry says, whereas other plant milks with stronger flavors (like cashew milk) have limited uses.
Nutritionally, macadamia milk has generous amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It also contains calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
Its consistency tends to be on the thicker side, making it a stronger choice for coffee drinks. A macadamia milk latte might hit the spot.
It's pricier compared to more mainstream plant-based milks, such as almond and soy. It's also not in as many stores as more popular milk alternatives, so it's not as accessible.
The higher fat content makes this a higher-calorie nut milk, which isn't inherently a bad thing, but something to be mindful of if you're trying to lose weight.
Yes, banana milk is a thing, and it's actually rather yummy (if you like bananas). Taste-wise, banana milk compares to sipping on a "healthified" milkshake. It's sweet, slightly fruity and super-creamy.
Banana milk is a "fun choice to add flavor to smoothies, baked goods, oatmeal, and maybe even your coffee," Terry says. "Can you imagine banana milk with Honey Nut Cheerios?"
Banana milk packs 8% of your daily needs for potassium, 25% of daily calcium needs (fortified, not naturally occurring) and contains vitamins B6 and C.
It has a sweet, creamy banana flavor without added sugar (unless you opt for the chocolate flavor).
Currently there's only one brand you can buy in stores, Mooala. As banana milk grows in popularity, other companies will probably jump on the bandwagon. However, until that happens, accessibility to store-bought banana milk may be limited for some.
Banana milk lacks vitamin D compared to other plant milks, most of which are fortified with vitamin D.
Rice milk is an allergy-friendly option for those who need to avoid nuts, seeds, soy or lactose, explains Terry. It's also a widely accessible option sold in various grocery stores. Rice milk has the highest carbohydrate content of all the plant-based milks on this list (not including sweetened and flavored options), but that's not a bad thing unless you need to watch your carb intake for health reasons.
Rice milk is inexpensive.
It's fortified with vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B12 and D, and calcium.
It has a mild flavor that's lightly sweet and versatile.
Rice milk is known to have a watery consistency.
It may contain added sugars, gums and additives for flavor, consistency and shelf-life. Check the label for ingredients if you're looking to avoid specific additives.
It is not a source of protein.
Another great allergy-friendly option, pea milk is made from yellow peas and is naturally soy-, gluten-, lactose-, and nut-free. Ripple is the best-known maker of pea milk, and Ripple milk has a pretty impressive nutrient profile compared to other plant milks.
Pea milk is high in protein -- eight ounces of Ripple pea milk contains eight grams of protein, making this a "solid choice for those looking for a protein-rich milk or a dairy substitute," Terry says.
Pea protein is rich in branched-chain amino acids.
It's a good source of omega-3s (from algal oil) and calcium.
It provides vitamins A and D as well as potassium and iron.
Certain types and flavors of pea milk are high in sugar.
Soy was once the only known plant-based source of a complete protein, but hemp seeds provide all 10 essential amino acids, too. The flavor is earthy and nutty, and as with all plant-based milks, some will love it while others won't.
Hemp seeds contain ample magnesium, folate, phosphorus and potassium.
Store-bought options tend to be fortified with additional calcium, phosphorus and vitamins A, B12 and D.
Higher in unsaturated healthy fats (omega-3 and omega-6) than other plant milks.
The high fat content in hemp may lead to digestive upset if you consume too much at once, but this is unlikely to happen with hemp milk, since it's not concentrated hemp.
Coconut milk is less of a drinking beverage and more of an ingredient for cooking, but some varieties of coconut milk do taste good on their own. As far as accessibility, you can probably get coconut milk at your local grocery store.
Coconut contains medium-chain triglycerides and is loaded with minerals, including manganese, magnesium, potassium, copper and selenium.
It's high in fiber compared to other plant-based milks.
Versatile -- You can find many varieties of coconut milk available for different culinary needs, such as drinks, sauces, baking, cooking.
Higher in calories and fat. Again, this isn't inherently bad, but it-could be a con for some, depending on personal health needs, goals and lifestyle choices.
It's not a protein-rich milk.
Which plant-based milk is best?
"When it comes to choosing the most well-rounded option for the combination of nutrition, sustainability and versatility, oat milk and hemp milk come out on top in my opinion," Terry says.
With so many plant-based milks on the market, it can be hard to find "the one," but unless you don't have access to multiple variations, you don't have to stick to just one type. "Various plant-based milks means diverse uses, culinary benefits and nutritional benefits," Terry says. "You may have one for your coffee, one for smoothies, one for baking, one for cooking [and] making sauces."
If you're looking for a protein-rich, plant-based milk to replace dairy milk, Terry recommends soy milk or pea milk. Most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals to match or even surpass the nutritional quality of cow's milk, so protein becomes the main factor.
Oh, and don't be scared of the gums and emulsifiers you see on the ingredients lists of plant-based milks. While these ingredients may cause digestive upset for some people, they're harmless for most people, Terry says. You may have heard phrases like "Don't eat ingredients that you can't pronounce" or "If you can't recognize it, neither can your body." In 2016, for example, an ad campaign attempted to demonize the additives in almond milk by scaring watchers into thinking lecithin was a shady ingredient.
"These phrases are neither helpful nor accurate," Terry says. "For example, plant milks may contain added 'alpha-tocopherols' which, sure, may be hard to pronounce, but is simply a type of vitamin E."
Finally, look out for sweetened flavors when shopping for plant-based milks. You might toss a harmless-looking chocolate almond milk carton into your basket, only to realize later that one eight-ounce glass has as much sugar as a candy bar. As always, reading nutrition labels can help you make healthy decisions.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
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