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Plant-based milks are a big business, reaching a milestone of $2.5 billion in sales in 2020. And these products aren’t showing any signs of slowing down – they’re in high demand. There are more plant-based, non-dairy milks to choose from than ever before. But with a dizzying array of cow milk alternatives on the shelves, it can be hard to choose one.
Whether you’re avoiding cow’s milk due to lactose intolerance, animal welfare or environmental concerns, or choosing non-dairy milk because of the perceived health benefits, there’s a lot to unpack before you buy. We’re breaking down the nutritional facts behind each type of non-dairy milk.
The first non-dairy milk to market, soy milk that’s fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D and B12 is still the most nutritionally comparable product to cow’s milk on the market. Soy milk contains all 9 of the essential amino acids and 7 grams of protein per cup (cow’s milk has 9g).
While there was once concern about isoflavones, the estrogen-mimicking compounds linked to breast cancer, the American Cancer Society has determined that moderate soy consumption is perfectly safe. Just make sure to read the labels, as many brands add loads of sugar. The best choices are plain, unsweetened brands that naturally contain just a 1 gram of sugar per serving. We suggest choosing organic soy milk to avoid any GMOs too.
The flavor of soy milk isn’t for everyone, particularly when sipped by itself or used in cereal or coffee, so you may need to experiment to find the brand you prefer and stick with it. Soy milk can be used as a substitute for cow’s milk in baking, but the flavor can detract from savory sauces. Plus, it’ll curdle if cooked too vigorously. Soy is one of the top 9 allergens, so be aware of how your body handles soy of any kind.
A nutritional lightweight in the plant-based milk line up, almond milk is mostly water, with just 2 to 14% of any given carton made up of ground almonds. With just 1 gram of protein and 0.5 grams of fiber per serving, you’re better off eating whole almonds.
That said, almond milk has a sweet, nutty flavor, and it’s sufficiently creamy to use in baking, smoothies or coffee when you want a mild milk substitute. Some brands add carrageenan and/or lecithin as a thickener and stabilizer, which can become gloppy when cooked in custards and may cause tummy trouble for some sensitive to the additives.
There’s a big difference between the various almond milk varieties you’ll find at your local grocery store. Some, like unsweetened elmhurst, have no additives at all; others, however, have a whole lot of additives. Make sure you read your labels carefully to choose a product that’s as clean as can be.
Made from milled rice, rice milk has a naturally sweet flavor and thin texture. It’s the least likely non-dairy milk to cause allergic reactions, so if you have nut, soy, or dairy allergies, fortified rice milk is a good choice.
Because this variety has a very mild, sweet flavor, it can be used in smoothies and baked goods. However, it tends to curdle in hot tea or coffee. It’s relatively low in calories and saturated fat, but with 27 grams of carbohydrates and very little protein, it can result in blood sugar spikes (it has a relatively high glycemic index of 79 to 92). Make sure to choose a brand that’s been enriched to add nutritional benefits with limited added sugar.
The newest non-milk to hit the shelves stirred up quite a sensation, due in part to its rich, creamy texture. Coffee lovers were the first to jump on the oat milk trend as coffee shops began carrying it as a lactose-free substitute for frothy cappuccinos and lattes. That success with baristas led to a huge tidal wave of growth in recent years, with new oat milk brands rushing to market nationwide.
Now, you can get your hands on oat milk at stores everywhere. Naturally sweet, with a mild, milky flavor, some brands fortify their blends with added vitamins and minerals. In addition to frothy coffee drinks, oat milk also stands up well in baked goods. Since it can be heated, adding it to roux to make a white sauce or stirring it into a blended soup isn’t a problem, though for the creamiest results, use higher fat (not low-fat) oat milk.
Some brands do include oils and gums to maintain consistency, so be sure to read the labels and opt for products with the shortest ingredient lists. If you’re gluten free, look for oat milks that are designated “gluten free.”
Keep reading to learn more about switching to a non-dairy milk: