If your local coffee shop’s menu has grown more confusing in the past few years, you’re not alone. Nondairy milk alternatives have expanded to include a wide variety of options (pea milk, anyone?), all of which maintain a healthy reputation. It can be tricky to keep them straight, much less sort out which ones are actually good for you or even worth the price. Don’t assume that all plant-based milks are all created equal; it is best to think of these alternatives as the liquid form of their original food. Whether you’re eating around dietary restrictions or simply looking for a new flavor profile, more protein, or something more natural, here’s what you need to know about the many products labeled as milk:
The presence of both naturally occurring and genetically modified hormones in dairy today has made it a hot topic with many dietitians. All dairy contains small levels of hormones like various estrogens, but organic brands will help you steer clear of GMOs like rBST.
However, across the board, cow’s milk has the most detrimental environmental impact: according to an Oxford review of over 150 studies, a single glass of cow’s milk uses more land and three times the greenhouse-gas emissions of any of the plant-based alternatives.
2. Lactose-Free Milk According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 65% of the human population (and 90% of adults of East Asian ancestry) have a reduced ability to digest lactose, a complex sugar found in milk, after infancy. Lactose-free milk has a nutrition profile similar to regular milk and offers a nice compromise for those who can’t digest the standard milk. Lactose-free milk isn’t made by removing lactose. Instead, manufacturers add the enzyme lactase, which breaks lactose down into easily digested sugars. This enzyme won’t help anyone with a whey or casein allergy though, as these components remain in the milk. It also tastes slightly sweeter than regular milk, since our tongue recognizes simple sugars as sweeter than complex ones.
3. Goat’s Milk Goat’s milk naturally contains less lactose than cow’s milk and is more nutritionally dense, with 168 calories per cup and around 10g each of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. It has a creamier texture which makes it great for lattes and thick sauces. The flavor of goat’s milk can change depending on goat breed and processing, so you may find that some brands taste sweet and mild, while others have a strong, more pungent flavor.
4. Rice Milk Unsweetened rice milk is primarily carbs, with 11g per cup and essentially no protein, making it a no-go for low-carb diets. At 70 calories per cup, it sits between cow’s milk and almond milk on the caloric spectrum, and it contains 25% of your daily calcium requirement.
Often rice milk contains brown rice syrup in addition to just plain rice, which is sugar by another name. I would recommend looking for milk alternatives that aren’t sweetened, and rice milk is a big offender. Check the label for other common additives, like canola oil, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum, used to thicken the texture.
5. Oat Milk Oat milk has grown in popularity in recent years and is very big in lattes now, thanks to its creamier texture. It’s also closer to cow’s milk in terms of caloric content: 120 calories per cup, 16g carbs, and 5g fat into each serving. Oat milk is also fortified with vitamins A, D, and B12, as well as calcium.
6. Hemp Milk This other recently trendy milk alternative has more fat and protein than almond or rice milk, with 4.7g protein and 7.3g fat (in the form of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) per 83-calorie serving. Unlike many plant-based options, it contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.
Like other alternatives, it’s fortified with sugars, thickeners, and vitamins A, B12, and D to mimic cow’s milk. Overall, this is a nutritional all-star.
7. Almond Milk Almond milk is great if you’re looking for a traditional milk flavor and texture with fewer calories. A serving of unsweetened almond milk is around 40 calories.
Almonds themselves have a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids that are considered helpful for weight loss, and marketing for almond milk can give the impression that each bottle is packed with almonds. But a lawsuit against Silk (one of the largest milk-alternative brands) in 2015 alleged that each bottle contained less than 2% almonds. The environmental impact is also worth noting: 80% of nuts used in almond milk are grown in drought-prone California, yet it takes over a gallon of water to produce a single almond.
8. Cashew Milk Like almond milk, unsweetened versions of cashew milk are low on macronutrients. So if you’re mainly trying to reduce overall daily caloric intake, swapping whole milk for a nut milk might be a place to start, but for an athlete looking to fuel performance, cashew milk comes up short. Compared to almond milk, cashew milk is slightly creamier, but a one cup serving is a mere 25 calories and less than 1g of both protein and carbs.
9. Soy Milk A 2018 study that compared plant-based milk alternatives found soy to have the most balanced nutritional profile of the bunch. Soy milk has 80 calories per cup, with 4g fat, 7g protein, and 3g carbs, making it similar in protein and fat to a glass of 2% milk. Silk also fortifies its soy milk with vitamins A, D2, and B12, and adds gellan gum to make it thicker.
10. Coconut Milk Coconut milk used to come exclusively in a can, and more often in curry than a latte. But now, more processed, drinkable forms of coconut milk are sold in cartons by the gallon, with a texture similar to almond milk. Both varieties are higher in fat and potassium and lower in protein than other milks. The caloric difference between a cup of canned coconut milk versus a cup of coconut milk is noteworthy: a cup of canned milk has 445 calories with 48g fat, while the carton milk has a mere 45 calories and 4.5 fat. Both offer a full daily dose of vitamin B.
10. Pea Milk Pea milk is derived from pea protein and offers a similar amount of protein and fat as regular whole milk 8g protein and 4g fat. It is higher in carbs, racking up 15g per cup. Pea milk has twice the amount of calcium of cow’s milk—as well as potassium. Most brands making pea milk boost it with additives like sunflower and algal oils, which offer a smooth texture and additional nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids.
Bottom Line: Get in touch with your own individual body. While cow's milk is inflammatory for many people, nuts and seed milks are some of the most prevalent allergens too. Also, carb-heavy milks such as oat milk could be inflammatory if you've been consistent on a low-carb eating plan. This shows that every body will react differently to each milk. Choose a milk that both your taste buds and body enjoy the most.
JACQUELINE CORBETT, MS RD LD
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Women's Health & Fitness Specialist.