If you’ve considered ditching dairy, the good news is, you aren’t short on options. Take a trip down the “milk” aisle at your grocery store, and you’ll see products made from nuts, seeds, beans, and grains. Whether you’re dealing with allergies or intolerances, or exploring a plant-based diet, you’ve actually got plenty to choose from. The not-so-good news? Not all of them offer the same level of nutrition.
Non-dairy milks are generally made by soaking the nut, seed, bean, or grain in water, then pulverizing it, mixing in lots of water, and adding sugar and a touch of salt. Manufacturers also typically add vitamins, minerals, and sometimes plant protein to boost the nutritional benefits. Thickeners, emulsifiers, and flavors are also added to create a consistently creamy beverage.
To help you make the best choice for your fridge and your family, here’s the lowdown on the myriad of milks out there.
Classic cow’s milk still delivers the most nutritional punch. It provides 8 grams of protein per cup, and high-quality vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, with zero added sugar. Most of the confusion is around which level of fat to choose. It depends how much you’re drinking. Whole milk is higher in calories and saturated fat compared to skim or 1 percent milk, which matters. If you’re only adding a dash to your morning coffee, full fat won’t kill you. But if you’re having more than that, low- or nonfat are the way to go. Skim milk isn’t highly processed, (the fat is simply spun off in a separator), and it’s more than just “sugar water” (remember that protein?).
If you’ve been avoiding cow’s milk because of intolerance issues, you could give A2 milk a try. It has a slightly different type of protein, which some people, who believe they have lactose intolerance, can tolerate better.
Soy is second best: Of all the alternatives, fortified, unsweetened soy milk comes the closest nutritionally to cow’s milk. It’s high in protein (6 grams per cup), with all the same vitamins and minerals added in, except without the saturated fat or lactose. Soy also naturally contains antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, which may help protect you against heart disease and cancer.
Some highly-publicized research on rats has linked soy to infertility and hormone-related cancers. But we now know, those effects aren’t seen in humans, and strong evidence suggests soy is safe as part of a healthy diet.
Almond milk is more popular than soy milk these days, showing up in coffee shops around the globe. It’s a good source of vitamin E, but besides that, this nutty “milk” isn’t as healthy as you might think. During processing, most of the pulp is removed, leaving mainly water and a bit of sugar behind. It’s lower in calories than cow’s milk, but it’s lacking in protein—so it won’t fill you up for long. It also takes a lot of water to produce an almond—1 gallon per nut. Cow’s milk doesn’t fare much better, but when you consider what you get nutritionally, say grams of protein, for that water cost—23 gallons per gram for almond milk versus less than 4 gallons per gram for cow’s milk—it becomes clear, you’re paying a lot for sugar water.
A relatively new addition to the nut milk family, cashew milk is similar to almond milk in terms of nutrition, with just slightly more sugar. So if you’re looking to mix up your flavors, give cashew milk a swirl in your smoothie. It’s also easy to make cashew milk at home, as all you need is a blender, and you don’t have to strain it (like almond milk). Take note: Your homemade version will provide more protein, fiber, and some minerals (though not calcium and potassium), than the store-bought variety, but also more calories and fat.
Everything coconut is trending these days, with new products popping up all the time. An interesting new addition is drinkable coconut milk. Before, if a recipe called for coconut milk, you’d need to reach for a can, which is loaded with calories and almost eight times more saturated fat per cup than whole milk. Now, there are also cartons in the dairy case, which can be poured and sipped like any other milk. Glass for glass, it delivers the same amount of saturated fat as whole milk, and half the calories. Should you be adding it to your morning smoothie, or requesting it at your local coffee spot? Maybe not. If you’re vegan, your diet is very likely low in saturated fat, so a bit of coconut milk probably won’t send your cholesterol skyrocketing, but it won’t do you an favors when it comes to protein. On the other hand, if you’re a meat eater, chances are you would do well to avoid the extra 5 grams of saturated fat per cup, so stick to skim in your latte, and save this one for the occasional curry.
You may not be familiar with hemp milk, but it’s a welcome new option. Made from hulled hemp seeds, it contains more protein than nut milks, though not by much—2 grams per cup. What’s interesting, however, is that it does offer some omega-3s. It’s also very easy to make at home, and is a tasty new way to get good fats and plant protein into your diet.
No matter which type of milk you grab in the dairy aisle, go for original or unsweetened. Flavored varieties are super tasty, but also loaded with extra sugar. Making your own non-dairy milk at home is a great way to avoid the additives that manufacturers throw in, but you’ll also be missing out on the vitamins and minerals they add in. So if you’re skipping cow’s milk, make sure you’re getting that good stuff, particularly calcium, from other sources.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.