Meet Your Ingredients: Milk Alternatives

Meet Your Ingredients: Milk Alternatives

Whether you’re vegan or simply prefer non-dairy milks, this guide to popular milk alternatives will help you figure out which option is best for you.

Do you drink milk or an alternative milk? 

While I’m not vegan or allergic to dairy, I’ve found that I generally feel better drinking alternative milks — plus, I also just like the taste better.

But when it comes to deciding which milk to go with, it can be beyond confusing.

So, to help you figure out what works best for your nutritional needs (and personal preferences) I’m breaking down some of the more popular alternative milk options currently on the market. 

What are alternative milks? 

Also referred to as non-dairy milks or milk alternatives, alternative milks have become super trendy over the past few years. 

While these products used to be consumed mainly by those allergic/intolerant to milk or vegan, many individuals who consume other dairy products like yogurt still prefer to use a milk alternative rather than cow’s milk. 

And while all different in nutritional composition, flavor, and texture, the one thing all these milk alternatives have in common is that they’re plant-based. This means rather than coming from an animal, they’re made from plant foods like nuts, seeds, grains, or legumes. 

Homemade milks are usually made by soaking the nut or seed, blending them with water, and then straining the mixture through a cheesecloth. Flavorings like salt, dates, or vanilla can also be added. 

Store bought options differ in that they’re usually fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Additionally, they often have added stabilizers and emulsifiers to improve texture and shelf life. These products usually offer unsweetened and sweetened varieties. 

Are milk alternatives better for you than cow’s milk? 

One of the most commonly searched phrases when it comes to non-dairy milks is: are milk alternatives better for you than cow’s milk? 

Unfortunately this is a hard question to answer as there are so many factors that go into this, both nutritionally and environmentally. 

From a nutritional standpoint, many non-dairy options are inferior to cow’s milk in terms of protein and calcium (unless fortified). However, soy milk is nutritionally very similar to cow’s milk as is pea milk. 

But, if calories are the only concern, then some alternative milks can be a better option. For example, unsweetened almond milk has just 30 calories per cup versus 80 calories in fat-free milk. 

There are also many non-nutrition reasons why someone may want to avoid cow’s milk, including: 

  • Dairy allergy or intolerance
  • Lactose intolerance 
  • Personal or religious beliefs 
  • Dislike the taste of milk
  • Feel better when they don’t drink milk 

When it comes to environmental impact, it really depends on the milk alternative that you’re comparing to cow’s milk. If you’re curious about how different milk options affect the environment, I recommend checking out this article from the BBC.

So, are milk alternatives better for you than cow’s milk? Unfortunately there’s no one-size fits all answer. It really depends on your personal nutritional needs as well as the milk alternative in question. 

Plus, if you simply like the taste of alternative milks better then there’s no reason why you have to have cow’s milk instead.

While there are definitely benefits to cow’s milk, it isn’t necessary for a healthy diet as you can get the same nutrients from other whole food sources. 

Light blue cup of coffee next to laptop

Nutritional comparison of popular milk alternatives 

If you decide to go the alternative milk route, then it’s important to know the nutritional differences between the different options. 

In order to do a fair comparison, below are the nutrition stats for 1 cup (240 ml) of the most popular alternative milk options.

Keep in mind that exact nutrition facts are based off of unsweetened varieties and the numbers may vary from brand to brand. 

Also, know that if ordering a drink with one of these milks at a coffee shop, you’re likely getting a sweetened version which will be higher in calories, carbs, and sugars. 

Unsweetened Almond Milk

  • Calories: 30
  • Fat: 2.5 grams
  • Carbs: 1 gram
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Fiber: <1 gram
  • Protein: 1 gram
  • Calcium: 30% of the daily value (DV) 
  • Vitamin D: 10% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of vitamins E and A

Quick take: Almond milk continues to be a popular option as it’s low in calories and carbs, but it’s also much lower in protein than soy or cow’s milk. 

Unsweetened Cashew Milk 

  • Calories: 25
  • Fat: 2 grams
  • Carbs: 1 gram
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Protein: <1 gram
  • Calcium: 45% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 25% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of vitamins E and A

Quick take: Cashew milk is super similar to almond milk when it comes to nutrition and taste. This means that it’s a low calorie, low carb option, but it’s also very low in protein. 

Unsweetened or Plain Oat Milk 

  • Calories: 80
  • Fat: 3 grams
  • Carbs: 11 grams
  • Sugar: 2-4 grams
  • Fiber: 1 grams
  • Protein: 2 grams
  • Calcium: 35% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 20% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of vitamins A and B2 (riboflavin) 

Quick take: Oat milk is another trendy milk. Nutritionally, it has about the same amount of calories and carbs as fat-free cow’s milk. The main differences are that it’s higher in fat and much lower in protein. 

Unsweetened Soy Milk

  • Calories: 80
  • Fat: 4 grams
  • Carbs: 3 grams
  • Sugar: 1 gram
  • Fiber: 2 grams
  • Protein: 7 grams
  • Calcium: 20% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 15% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of vitamin A, folate, and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) 

Quick take: Soy milk is the closest to cow’s milk as it has about the same number of calories and protein as fat-free milk. However, soy milk is higher in fat and lower in carbs than fat-free milk. 

Unsweetened Pea Milk (Ripple is the most common brand) 

  • Calories: 70
  • Fat: 4.5 grams
  • Carbs: <1 grams
  • Sugar: 0 gram
  • Fiber: <1 grams
  • Protein: 8 grams
  • Calcium: 35% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 30% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of vitamin A and potassium 

Quick take: Ripple (a pea protein-based milk) has about the same number of calories and protein as fat-free milk, but it’s higher in fat and much lower in carbs and sugar. 

Unsweetened Coconut Milk 

  • Calories: 40
  • Fat: 4 grams
  • Carbs: 1 gram
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Calcium: 35% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 10% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of vitamins A and E

Quick take: Coconut milk is low in calories, carbs, sugar and protein, yet higher in fat. It may be a good option for those on a low-carb, high-fat diet like the keto diet. 

Unsweetened Rice Milk 

  • Calories: 70
  • Fat: 2.5 grams
  • Carbs: 11 grams
  • Sugar: <1 gram
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Calcium: 25% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 25% of the DV
  • Other notables: good source of phosphorus and vitamin A 

Quick take: Rice milk honestly doesn’t have much going for it. It has about the same number of calories and carbs as fat-free milk, yet it doesn’t provide any protein. 

So, what’s the healthiest milk alternative then? 

Unfortunately I have to give you the ultimate dietitian response: the healthiest milk alternative depends on your health goals and the rest of your diet. 

  • For reducing calories: almond or cashew milk (just make sure to get adequate protein from other sources)
  • Best for protein: soy or pea milk
  • Easiest to make yourself: oat milk

Curious how to make your own oat milk? My go-to tutorital is from Cookie + Kate

And remember: for vitamins and minerals that are similar to cow’s milk, make sure to buy a milk alternative that’s fortified with at least vitamin D, vitamin B12, and calcium.

What about flax and hemp milks? 

I didn’t include these two above as they’re not as common, especially at coffee shops. Yet, I think they’re still worth mentioning. 

Flax milk is made from flax seeds. Nutritionally, it’s a good source of healthy fats, and unsweetened varieties are very low in carbs and calories.

However, it’s very low in protein (usually <1 gram) and many brands add sugar to the milk. 

Hemp milk comes from hemp seeds.

Meet Your Ingredients: Milk Alternatives

As mentioned in a previous post, some people get a little nervous about the idea of hemp since it comes from the cannabis plant. However, rest assured that hemp milk does not contain THC and will not get you high. 

Hep milk can be a good option for vegans as it’s high in iron (has more than cow’s milk) and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also free of soy, gluten, and nuts, and it has around 3 grams of protein per cup.

However, it does have a pretty earthy flavor that may not be appealing for some. 

How to choose the right milk alternative for you

Here are some things to consider with choosing the best alternative milk for you:

  • Nutrition: especially calories, fat, and protein
  • Allergens
  • Ingredient list
  • How you’re going to use it: some options may be good for coffee or smoothies, but add an unwanted flavor to savory dishes.

Just note that regardless of which option you go with, I strongly recommend buying a milk alternative that’s fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. 

Allergens 

If you have a food allergy, some of these alternative milks may be a no-go regardless of their nutritional content. Keep in mind that unless otherwise stated on the label, alternative milks are lactose and dairy-free. 

Here are the best options for a few common allergens: 

  • If you have a nut allergy: Soy or Oat milk. Soy will have more protein, yet oat will have a nuttier flavor. 
  • For those with a soy allergy: Pea, Oat, or Almond. I know. It’s a lot. But again it goes back to what you’re looking for. Nutritionally, pea milk is going to be most similar to soy. However, oat and almond are going to be a bit sweeter and nuttier tasting. 
  • If you have a gluten allergy or intolerance: It depends on what ingredients were added to the milk. Brands that are known for being gluten-free include Silk, Almond Breeze, Pacific Foods, and Almond Breeze. 
  • If you have multiple food allergies: Pea milk is your best bet as it’s free of nuts, lactose, gluten, and soy. Plus, unlike coconut milk, it’s a good source of protein. 

What about added ingredients? 

A good rule of thumb is to choose brands that have as few ingredients as possible. 

Some ingredients to keep an eye out for include: 

  • Evaporated Cane Juice, Cane Sugar or Cane Syrup: these are all forms of sugar and a sign that the milk contains added sugars. While not necessarily a deal-breaker, having too much added sugar in your diet can be bad for overall health. 
  • Inulin or chicory root: this ingredient is commonly added to foods in order to boost the fiber content. While perfectly safe to consume, it is high in FODMAPS, meaning it could cause symptoms in those with IBS. 
  • Xanthan and Guar Gum: these two ingredients are popular emulsifiers that are added to create a creamy consistency. Again, while they’re not dangerous to consume, they have been linked with causing GI discomfort in some individuals. 

What about D-alpha-tocopherol? Despite sounding scary, it’s actually just a type of vitamin E that’s often added to alternative milks. 

Which milk alternative tastes the best?

Sure, nutrition and healthfulness is important. But neither of those matter if you don’t like the taste.

Personally, I think oat milk is the best tasting alternative milk as it has a mild, oaty flavor. Plus, even though it has a thin texture, it tastes a bit thicker and creamer.

I’ve also heard from others that oat milk is the easiest to get used to if you used to drink cow’s milk.

But just because that’s my favorite, doesn’t mean it’s what you’re looking for. Almond and cashew can be good milk alternative options if you want something a little sweeter.

While soy, pea, and hemp milks are a bit earthier. And of course, coconut milk is going to have a coconut flavor.

Taking a spoonful of chocolate amaranth pudding with raspberries and fresh mint

Which milk alternatives work best in cooking and baking?

When it comes to using milk alternatives in cooking and baking there are three main factors to consider: flavor, fat, and protein. 

Different milks have different flavors, and some of these flavors are more overpowering than others. For example, both soy and coconut milks have distinct tastes that can alter the flavor of whatever you add them to. 

So, for savory dishes like soups, your best bets are an unsweetened almond milk, unsweetened or original oat milk, or unsweetened or original pea milk. 

However, keep in mind that the lower the fat, the less creamy the end result will be.

So, for a soup that you want to be nice and creamy, oat or pea milk may be a better option than unsweetened almond milk. Or, if making a dish that goes well with coconut flavor, then coconut milk can be a good option as well. 

For baked goods or sweet breakfast items like pancakes and waffles, feel free to use any milk that you want. Just again, keep in mind that soy and hemp milks may add an earthiness to the recipe. 

There is one “but” to this: when a recipe calls for milk plus an acid, like lemon juice, you’ll get better results by using an alternative that’s higher in protein like soy, hemp, or pea milk. 

This is because the acid reacts with the protein in the milk to help rise whatever it is you’re cooking/baking. 

My recommendations for the best milk alternative brands to buy at the grocery store

Now that you have, hopefully, all the info you need to decide which milk to go with, here are my go-to brands. Not only do I like their ingredient profiles, but the quality is good as well. 

I also went with options that are found nation-wide. So keep in mind that just because I like these ones, it doesn’t mean that your local grocery store wont have a brand that’s equally healthy and delicious. 

  • For soy, almond, cashew, or coconut milks: Silk: it’s easy to find, consistently good quality, and overall clean ingredient list that’s free of common additives like gaur gum, xanthan, and carregan. 
  • Notable mention for almond milk: Califia Farms: it’s super creamy flavor, but does contain more added ingredients than Silk. 
  • For oat milk: Planet Oat: I love the nutty flavor and creamy texture. Plus, it’s free of inulin, which makes my IBS stomach very happy. 
  • For pea milk: Ripple: it’s easy to find and is less sweet than Bolthouse farm’s version. Texture-wise it’s very similar to skim milk. 
Spoon in mason jar of peanut butter overnight oats

What milk alternative do I use? 

I’ve learned that everyone tends to have strong opinions on the type of milk alternatives they like best. 

I used to have a variety of milk alternatives based on what I was using them for: soy milk for post-workout protein, oat milk for coffee, and unsweetened almond milk for baking and cooking. 

However, now I only buy plain oat milk as I personally think it’s the best tasting alternative milk and the best alternative milk for coffee, overnight oats, pancakes, and smoothies

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About Kelli McGrane Headshot

I’m Kelli MS, RD, and my mission is to prove that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. Follow along to learn more about food and cooking, with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

About Kelli McGrane Headshot

Welcome to The Healthy Toast!

Hi, I’m Kelli McGrane MS, RD! My mission is to show you that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. I believe getting to know your food is the first step to a healthy relationship with it. Follow along in my journey to learn all I can about ingredients and cooking with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

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