From the grocery aisle to the coffee shop, nondairy milk alternatives have exploded in popularity over the last few years. Soy, almond, oat, coconut, pea, and rice are some of the more common plant-based milks. Others, like cashew and macadamia, are rarer. And there are more on the horizon. (Potato milk, anyone?)
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lets manufacturers call some nondairy beverages “milk,” don’t assume they have the same nutritional content as cow’s milk. Some are healthy for you — while others are closer to liquid dessert.
Why drink nondairy milks?
People who have a dairy allergy or are intolerant of milk sugar (called lactose) or milk protein may avoid cow’s milk. Lactose intolerance is most common among Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American adults.1 Some people also worry about the environmental impacts of dairy farming or the unethical treatment of cows.
And some people may choose nondairy milks because they want to limit animal foods and dairy and eat a more plant-based diet. Eating a diet of mostly whole, unprocessed plant foods has many health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and even certain cancers. Nondairy milks are processed from a plant's natural state. For example, almond milk is made from almonds. Some alternative milks are good for you — but they’re not all healthier than cow’s milk just because they’re made from plants. On the other hand, some plant-based milks also get a bad rap. For example, there’s no evidence that soy milk causes breast cancer.2
To help you choose a milk, we’ve compared the nutrition of regular cow’s milk to some popular brands of nondairy milks. We also talked to Regina Ragasa, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) in the Family Practice Department at Kaiser Permanente North Hollywood, about what milk she recommends to her patients and loved ones.
Comparing dairy and alternative milks
Here are 6 key nutrients to look out for when choosing your milk. Be sure to check the nutrition facts as these will vary from brand to brand. For nondairy milks, Dr. Ragasa favors ones with fewer ingredients. “The simpler, the better,” she says.
One reason people drink regular milk is because it’s high in calcium. When you hear calcium, you might think of strong bones and teeth. Your bones are like your body’s calcium bank — you store calcium in your bones. But your body needs calcium for many important functions. For example, calcium supports blood circulation, helps muscles contract, and releases hormones.
Women’s calcium needs increase after menopause. Not getting enough calcium can put you at risk of osteoporosis.
Calcium is naturally occurring in cow’s milk. It’s often added to nondairy milks in a process called fortifying (or enriching). Fortified almond and pea milks (made from yellow split peas) have the most calcium, at about 450 milligrams (mg) per serving. Cow’s milk and fortified oat, soy, and macadamia milks have 300 mg or more.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. It’s best to consume these nutrients together. That’s why many manufacturers fortify cow’s milk and nondairy alternatives with vitamin D. If they’re not fortified, dairy and nondairy milks have no vitamin D.
Fortified pea, almond, and rice milks have the most vitamin D, with about 5 micrograms (mcg) or more per serving. Fortified oat, soy, and cow’s milks have 3 mcg or more.
Protein is one of the main nutrients your body needs every day. It provides you with energy and builds and repairs muscle. Animal products and soy are high in protein, but it’s also found in grains, beans, and most plant foods. Dr. Ragasa chooses high-protein soy milk for herself and her children.
Low-fat cow’s milk is the most protein-rich, with 11 grams (g) per serving. Pea, soy, and regular and fat-free cow’s milks have between 7 g and 9 g.
Sugar and carbohydrates
When choosing a plant-based milk, choose ones with no added sugar. Some “original” formulas include sugar so look for versions labeled “unsweetened.” Check the ingredients list for sugar and the nutrition label — there should be a line for added sugars beneath the total carbohydrates (carbs).
Carbs are naturally occurring in cow’s, oat, and rice milks. Carbs are an essential nutrient that provide energy. But some people, like those with diabetes, may need to limit carbs for health reasons. (Note: You can’t digest fiber, so you can subtract that number from the total carbs.)
Dr. Ragasa tells her diabetic and prediabetic patients to avoid animal protein, including dairy.3 When patients stop eating animal products, their blood glucose (sugar) levels are more in control, she says.
Unsweetened pea, hemp, macadamia, almond, and coconut milks have 1 g or less of carbs per serving.
Your body needs some fat to be healthy, but not all fats are good for you. Try to avoid saturated fat, which can raise the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in your blood that clogs your heart’s arteries. Saturated fat is found in animal protein, coconut oil, and palm oil. If you drink cow’s milk, stick to low-fat or nonfat (skim) varieties.
Some nondairy milks have polyunsaturated fats. This fat is better for you than saturated fat. It’s found in soybeans and nuts, as well as safflower and sunflower oils, which are sometimes added to nondairy milks to give them a creamy texture.
Skim cow’s milk and almond, rice, and hemp milks have zero saturated fats. Soy, pea, oat, and macadamia milks have 0.5 g of saturated fat per serving.
The right choice for you
Now that you know what nutrients to look for, choosing the right milk for you comes down to your taste buds. Your favorite milk may not stack up perfectly in every nutritional category — and that’s OK. Whether you choose dairy or plant-based, you can drink your milk in moderation as part of a balanced diet.