Which Nondairy Milk is Best? Your Complete Guide to Choosing a Plant-Based Milk – 80 Twenty Nutrition

Which Nondairy Milk is Best? Your Complete Guide to Choosing a Plant-Based Milk

When we say the word “milk,” we’re no longer just talking about milk from a cow or a goat – everything from nuts and seeds to beans and grains are now being “milked.” That gives lots of options to vegans and other people who are avoiding dairy, but can also make for an overwhelming trip to the grocery store. When it comes to choosing a nondairy milk, what should you look for? Which nondairy milk is best? Here is your complete guide to choosing a plant-based milk.

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What Nutrients Do You Need in Your Milk Alternative?

Plant-based milks vary greatly in protein, carbohydrate, and fat content, as well as in vitamin and mineral content. When you’re choosing a nondairy milk, it’s important to remember that most milk alternatives won’t be an equal replacement for cow’s milk when it comes to protein. Many nondairy milks are fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals to provide some of the same nutrients as fortified cow’s milk.

When choosing a nondairy milk, it’s important to know what your goals are. For example, if you’re looking for a milk alternative because you’re lactose intolerant or have trouble digesting dairy products, but you’ll still be relying on your “milk” alternative for protein – you’ll want to opt for a nondairy milk higher in protein (more on that below). However, if you’re confident that you get enough protein from other sources and you’re just looking for a creamy smoothie addition that isn’t too high in calories, you might want to opt for a different nondairy milk.

Choose Unsweetened Nondairy Milk

The major hang-up I have with nondairy milk is that it’s often loaded with added sugar. Cow’s milk has some natural sugar, but you won’t find any added sugar unless you’re reaching for the flavored ones like strawberry or chocolate milk. But when you pick up an unflavored “original” nondairy milk, chances are it has tons of sugar added to make it taste better Plenty of people make the switch from dairy milk to nondairy milk in an attempt to follow a plant-based diet and to otherwise be healthy, but they can end up adding unnecessary added sugars to their diets in the process.

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My advice: always opt for unsweetened nondairy milk. If you’re using it in smoothies or baking, you won’t miss the extra sugar. If you can’t stand drinking unsweetened nondairy milk straight and opt for the sweetened stuff, keep this in mind: you’re not doing yourself any health favors (other than maybe improved digestion if you’re sensitive to dairy) by switching from dairy milk to sweetened nondairy milk. Sweetened nondairy milk should be enjoyed as a treat that may happen to offer some vitamin and mineral benefits, rather than a daily drink.

Avoid Unnecessary Fillers

Just like nondairy milks can be filled with sweeteners that you wouldn’t find in plain dairy milk, they can also be filled with other ingredients that you don’t necessarily want to be drinking. Additions  such as sunflower oil, various gums and carrageenan may sneak into nondairy milks as emulsifiers to keep everything smooth. If you’ve heard of carrageenan, you’ve probably heard some nasty things about it. The whole story is a post for another day, but to sum it up: carrageenan is an emulsifier made from seaweed that’s gotten a bad reputation as an inflammation-inducing, cancer-causing additive. However, there’s plenty of research saying that these claims take the evidence way out of context, and that carrageenan simply doesn’t cause inflammation in our guts.

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My word on carrageenan and health: if you can find a nondairy milk that you enjoy and that fits your needs that doesn’t have any gums or carrageenan added, go for it! If you can’t, don’t beat yourself up about it – the amount you’d be consuming in a cup of the product isn’t likely to have an impact. If you come across nondairy milks with oils added, pass on those – it’s simply unnecessary to be drinking vegetable oil! Save it for your salad or roasted veggies and get most of your fat from whole foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados.

Look for Nondairy Milk with Calcium

When it comes to the mineral content of milk alternatives, calcium is key. When most people hear the word “calcium,” their brains immediately turn to milk. Even though there are many sources of calcium, cutting out milk may mean cutting out a major source of their calcium intake – and many Americans and Canadians already aren’t getting enough calcium.

Thankfully, many nondairy milks are fortified with calcium. Make sure you buy a milk alternative that’s rich in calcium for bone health and to prevent osteoporosis and fractures.

Grocery Shopping Tip: Check the Nutrition Facts table and find a milk alternative that has at 30% daily value (DV) for calcium in a 1 cup serving.

image: Pixabay

Look for Nondairy Milk with Vitamin D

So you’ve found a milk alternative that’s fortified with calcium. That’s fantastic… but you should also look for one with some vitamin D added to it. Vitamin D is needed to help your body absorb calcium, so they really should go hand in hand. Plus, many of us aren’t getting enough vitamin D because it’s found in so few foods (find out more about how to get enough vitamin D).

Grocery Shopping Tip: Check the Nutrition Facts table and choose a nondairy milk that has at least 20% DV for vitamin D in a 1 cup serving. That means your milk alternative is a good source of vitamin D. Ideally, a cup of your nondairy milk should serve up 45% DV of vitamin D.

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Get Nondairy Milk with Vitamin B12 if You’re Vegan

If you’re a vegan or otherwise aren’t eating foods that come from animal sources, you won’t be getting vitamin B12. This can lead to a type of anemia that will lead you feeling tired and dizzy. Many nondairy milks are now fortified with vitamin B12 to help you get enough of this important nutrient for healthy red blood cells and more.

Should I Make My Own Nondairy Milk?

You definitely can! The pros are you know what ingredients are going into your milk alternative, so you won’t be getting any strange emulsifiers or fillers.

The downside to making your own nondairy milk is it obviously won’t be fortified with vitamins and minerals. That means you won’t be able to rely on it as a source of calcium and vitamin D in your diet. If that doesn’t bother you, go ahead and milk those plants! You can’t beat storebought milk alternatives for the convenience factor.

image: Shutterstock

Nondairy Milk Comparisons:

Almond Milk

The Pros:

Unsweetened almond milk typically has about 30 calories and 2.5 grams of fat per cup.

Almond milk is a natural source of vitamin E and calcium – though many are also fortified with calcium to level the playing field with cow’s milk, providing 30-45% DV per serving. Don’t settle for less!

image: Mike Mozart via Flickr

The Cons:

It’s fairly low in protein, providing about 1 gram per cup, on average (cow’s milk provides about 8 grams of protein in 1 cup).

Who It’s For:

Almond milk is a great option if you’re looking for a milk alternative that’s low in calories but don’t care as much about the low protein content.

How to Use It:

I like using almond milk in smoothies, where I can add in other nutrient-rich ingredients, but still want the creaminess of milk when I blend it up. It’s also fantastic in baking, chia pudding and on granola.

Soy Milk

The Pros:

Since soybeans themselves are higher in protein and lower in fat than the nuts or grains that many other nondairy milks are made from, soy milk comes the closest to dairy milk with 6-8 grams of protein per cup. Many soy milks are also calcium fortified, giving you at least 30% DV per serving. As with all of the milk alternatives, choose unsweetened soy milk

image: Pixabay

The Cons:

If you’re concerned about genetically modified foods, you may want to go for organic soymilk. Organic soymilk is automatically non-GMO.

Who It’s For:

If you’re switching to nondairy milk but still looking for the nutritional profile of dairy milk, soy milk is probably your best bet.

If you’re a cancer survivor or have been recently diagnosed with cancer, read more about the recommendations for servings of soy per day.

Cashew Milk

The Pros:

Unsweetened cashew milk typically has about 25 calories and 2 grams of fat per cup. Cashew milk is typically fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B-12. Look for one that provides at least 35-40% DV of calcium per serving!

The Cons:

Much like almond milk, cashew milk is low in protein, providing about 1 gram per cup.

Who It’s For:

Cashew milk is great if you’re looking for a low-calorie milk alternative that’s sweeter, creamier, and less nutty than almond milk.

Almond vs. Soy vs. Coconut - how do you know which nondairy milk to buy?! Share on X

Coconut Milk

When we talk about coconut milk as an alternative to cow’s milk, we’re not talking about the kind that comes in a can. Canned coconut milk is thicker and more often used for cooking like in my Coconut Curry Chicken Thighs while “coconut milk beverage” – the one you can find in a carton alongside other nondairy milks – is usually thinned out to a “milk” consistency and fortified with vitamins and minerals. Unless you’re trying to gain weight, you probably don’t want to drink canned coconut milk!

The Pros:

Coconut milk has a nuttier, more distinct flavor than most other milk alternatives. It’s much creamier and richer, too!

The Cons:

Carton coconut milk is higher in fat than other nondairy milks, with about 5 grams of fat – most of which is saturated – per cup. (Read more about coconut oil).

This milk alternative is  fairly low in protein, with about 1 gram per cup, and unsweetened varieties of coconut milk generally have about 45 calories per cup.

Who It’s For:

If you’re looking for a richer, flavorful milk alternative or an alternative to half and half or cream, coconut milk is the way to go.

How to Use It:

Coconut milk is significantly richer and creamier than other nondairy milks, making it a great option for stirring into coffee or adding richness to oatmeal or tropical smoothies.

image: Burst

Rice Milk

The Pros:

Rice milk is free of most common allergens and even the unsweetened variety has a nice sweet flavor.

The Cons:

Rice milk tends to be higher in carbohydrates than other nondairy milks, even when unsweetened. Unsweetened rice milk has about 11 grams of carbs and 70 calories, compared to unsweetened almond milk which has about 2 grams of carbs and 30 calories.

None of the carbs in rice milk are in the form of fiber, meaning you’re getting more simple/refined carbs in every cup. Rice milk provides about a gram of protein per cup and is usually vitamin and mineral-fortified like other nondairy milks.

Who It’s For:

Since you’re getting more simple carbs in each cup of rice milk, without any considerable nutrition advantages over other nondairy milks, rice milk is definitely not my first choice. It is, however, useful if you’re sensitive to dairy, nuts, and soy.

Oat Milk

The Pros:

Oat milk provides about 2 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein per cup, more than most other nondairy milks.

The Cons:

Oat milk is usually higher in carbohydrates than other nondairy milks, including rice milk. Unsweetened oat milk has about 24 grams of carbs and 130 calories, twice that of rice milk. Of those 24 grams of carbs, 19 are natural sugars – compared to about 11 grams of natural sugar in dairy milk.

Who It’s For:

If you’re sensitive to dairy, nuts, and soy, oat milk is a more nutrient-dense alternative to rice milk. Otherwise, I’d stick to other nondairy milks and focus on getting protein and fiber from other foods.

Hemp Milk

The Pros:

Hemp milk boasts natural omega-3 fatty acids and high quality protein, unlike many other nondairy milks. Unsweetened varieties of hemp milk land at 60-70 calories, 5-6 grams of fat, just 1 gram of carbs, and about 2 grams of protein per cup. Some brands are fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals.

image: Mike Mozart via Flickr

The Cons:

Hemp milk tends to be much more expensive than other nondairy milks.

Who It’s For:

It’s a good milk alternative if you’re sensitive to dairy, nuts, and soy, or if you’re looking for an omega-3 boost with a nutty flavor.

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What’s your favorite kind of nondairy milk? What do you use it for? Let me know in the comments below!


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