Plant-based milks are a great option for anyone choosing to avoid dairy milk. When it comes to nutrition, though, some are better than others.
Keep this handy guide on-hand when considering which milk alternative to use in your cereal, smoothies, and morning coffee.
1. Soy Milk
Soy milk was one of the first plant-based milks to gain popularity. And in terms of nutrition, it’s pretty spot on.
“It’s the most high-quality protein alternative, meaning the amino acids are the most digestible and absorbable for use by the body,” says Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N.
Given that—and its higher protein content—soy milk is a good option for active people who need to prioritize protein for muscle repair.
If you’re concerned about the health and environmental impacts of GMOs and pesticides, opt for a soy milk that’s organic or Non-GMO Project-verified. “Soy is a legume and when farmed correctly, legumes can actually enrich soil rather than deplete it, and do not have a large water need, making them a sustainable protein and nutrient source,” says Jones.
Nutrition per cup of Unsweetened West Soy Organic Soymilk: 100 calories • 5g fat • 4g carbs • 1g fiber • 9g protein
Price: $0.62 per 8 ounces
2. Almond Milk
These days, almond milk probably tops the list of most-requested plant-based beverages. “With a mild flavor, it works well in many dishes, and tastes good on its own,” says dietitian EA Stewart, M.B.A., R.D., C.L.T.
From an environmental perspective, almond milk requires more water to produce than most other milks. (It still requires less than cow’s milk, though.) If environmental sustainability is an issue for you, you might want to opt for a different option.
Nutrition per cup of Unsweetened MALK Almond Milk: 130 calories • 11g fat • 3g carbs • 3g fiber • 5g protein
Price: $1.57 per 8 ounces
3. Coconut Milk
Higher in saturated fat (and lower in carbs) than other plant-based milks, coconut milk-based beverages have a creamy texture.
According to Jones, coconut milk works well in baked goods and any recipe that could use some rich, tropical flavor. However, while “coconut lovers will enjoy the taste of coconut milk, for some people, the coconut flavor is too overpowering,” says Stewart.
Since canned coconut milk is higher in calories and fat, opt for a variety in a box or carton to keep things lighter.
Nutrition per cup: 50 calories • 5g fat • <1g carbs • 0g fiber • <1g protein
Price: $0.57 per 8 ounces
4. Cashew Milk
Cashew milk has a delicious, mild taste and creamy texture. “Some say they enjoy cashew milk more than others with coffee,” says Jones. (The potential reason why: a higher fat content than many other options.)
It’s generally a win from an environmental perspective, too: “When sourced from areas not ridden with droughts (like almonds sourced from California), its sustainability is superior to the other nut milks,” Jones adds.
One downside of cashew milk worth noting: It tends to be one of the priciest plant-based milks on the market.
Nutrition per cup: 110 calories • 9g fat • 5g carbs • 0g fiber • 2g protein
Price: $1.00 per 8 ounces
5. Oat Milk
A new coffee shop staple, oat milk has been on the rise—and for good reason. “It’s creamy and delicious, and froths up beautifully for cappuccinos,” says Stewart. “Many other plant-based milks leave little to be desired in the foam department.”
One catch: If an oat milk does not list “gluten-free oats” on the label, people with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease should probably avoid it. “Even oat milks that do say ‘gluten-free’ on the label should be consumed with caution,” says Steward. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer to ask about their oats and processing.
Nutrition per cup: 130 calories • 7g fat • 14g carbs • 0g fiber • 1g protein
Price: $1.07 per 8 ounces
6. Hemp Milk
Naturally gluten-free, hemp milk may be good choice for people with gluten issues, or soy or nut allergies.
Another major advantage of hemp milk is that it contains more plant-based omega-3 fats (specifically ALA) than other plant-based milks, says Jones. This gives it a little extra nutritional value and immune-boosting power.
“It’s also quite low in carbohydrates, making it a preferred option for anyone following a low-carb diet,” says Stewart.
Though not as much of a water-sucker as almond milk, hemp milk does require a good amount of H20 to produce, Jones says.
Nutrition per cup of Living Harvest Unsweetened Hemp Milk: 80 calories • 8g fat • 1g carbs • 0g fiber • 2g protein
Price: $1.10 per 8 ounces
What To Look For When Buying Plant-Based Milk
With dairy-free milks taking over, picking the right brand or variety of plant-based milk has become a lot trickier. Stick to these guidelines when shopping:
First, “for all plant-based milks, choose the unsweetened version with the least amount of ingredients,” says Stewart.
And, if you have a weak, sensitive tummy, you might want to choose plant-based milks without gums and fillers. “While many of these gums may be safe, people with digestive symptoms may not tolerate them well,” Stewart adds.
Once you’ve got a quality milk picked out, just remember that plant-based beverages are not true substitutes for cow’s milk—especially when it comes to protein and certain vitamins and minerals.
“Most plant-based milks don’t contain calcium like cow’s milk, nor do they have added vitamin D and A,” says Steward. “Make sure you’re getting these nutrients from other foods, or opt for a plant-based milk that’s fortified.” You can also supplement with capsules or soft gels. We recommend The Vitamin Shoppe brand Dry A capsules and The Vitamin Shoppe Calcium 1200 with D3 soft gels.
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