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Which non-dairy milk is healthiest? It depends.

Plant milks like soy, nut and oat milk are trendy, but are they good for us?

Califia Farms Unsweetened Almondmilk

Califia Farms Unsweetened Almondmilk

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Maybe you gave up dairy because you’re vegan, lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy or simply love the taste of plant-based milk. But now you’re overwhelmed by all the options on store shelves. From almond to oat to soy, it can be hard to figure out which alternative is the most nutritious. Read on to get the skinny on non-dairy milk and which ones are the healthiest replacements for traditional milk.

First, how is plant-based, non-dairy milk made?

Although plant-based milks share a name with their dairy counterpart, they’re quite different from cow’s milk. In a nutshell, plant milk is basically water infused with nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, or coconut. To make it, you blend your chosen solid (like almonds or rolled oats) with fresh water and then strain the liquid. The resulting flavored water is the plant “milk.”

Other than that, no two products (or even batches, if you are making your own at home) are the same.

For starters, you can choose to soak the solids in water before pureeing them with fresh water. This can help break down the ingredients and make their nutrients easier to digest. Next, you need to decide on a specific ratio of solids to water — anywhere from 1:2 to 1:8. The lower the ratio of water to solids, the thicker, creamier, and richer in nutrients the milk will be.

In general, mass-produced plant milks have a higher ratio of water to solids than homemade versions. To make these watery products thicker and creamier, companies often add emulsifiers and thickeners (like gellan and locust bean gums, lecithin, oils, and carrageenan). They also tend to include flavorings (like vanilla and salt), sweeteners, and nutrients (protein, vitamin D, calcium).

Since there’s so much variation amongst homemade and commercial plant-based milks, the best ways to assess a product’s healthfulness are to read its nutritional panel or to make it yourself.

Health benefits of plant milk

Since plant milks are mostly water, their health benefits mostly come down to what they don’t contain (milk protein or casein, milk sugar or lactose, and cholesterol) rather than what they do. In comparison to cow’s milk, unsweetened non-dairy milks generally have fewer calories, less sugar, and less fat.

For these reasons, plant milks are ideal for anyone who is vegan, lactose-intolerant, allergic to milk, or watching their cholesterol intake.

“The benefits may be specific to the person,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in health management, said. “For example, there could be a reduced risk of inflammation in individuals with certain food intolerances.”

Which plant milk is healthiest?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to which non-dairy milk is the healthiest. Instead, it comes down to your specific tolerances, health conditions, and priorities. 

For instance, you’ll need to avoid soy milk if you have a soy allergy and nut milk if you have a nut allergy. Kirkpatrick suggested getting tested to determine whether you have a casein (milk protein) allergy or are intolerant to lactose (milk sugar).

If cutting calories is your number one goal, consider nut milk. Otherwise, Kirkpatrick suggested making soy milk your go-to. She recommends soy milk because it’s almost like animal milk in terms of nutritional benefits.

“Soy milk provides the highest levels of calcium, B vitamins, potassium and protein,” she said.

In fact, some soy milks contain even more protein than cow’s milk, according to Dr. Nisha Chellam, who specializes in internal and holistic, integrative medicine.

Plant-based milk is often fortified with calcium to match the levels found in cow’s milk; however, at least one study found that calcium added to soy milk isn’t well absorbed. If adequate calcium intake is a concern for you and you were previously relying on cow’s milk as a source, consider upping your intake of calcium-rich foods like seafood or dark leafy greens. It’s also a good idea to talk this through with your doctor. 

When you’re comparing plant-based milk options at the store, try to avoid plant milks with added sweeteners by looking for the word “unsweetened” on the packaging and consider staying away from “original”-flavored kinds of milk since they’re often sweetened with added sugars. 

The best non-dairy milks to try

To help you pick your ideal type of non-dairy milk, here’s a round-up of varieties, some of which are better for cooking with than drinking. Nutritional stats, based on averages across different brands of unsweetened plant-based milks, are all for one 8-ounce serving.

Kirkpatrick recommends trying them all to see which one agrees best with you.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is inexpensive, easy to find, and versatile. On the plus side, it’s low in calories, sugar, and fat; however, non-fortified versions include very little in the way of protein.

Nutrition information per serving: 40 calories, 0 g sugar, 1 g protein, 2-3 g fat, 0 g fiber

Try: Califia Farms Unsweetened Almondmilk 

Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Milk
Califia Farms
walmart.com
$3.67

Cashew Milk

Slightly less common than almond milk, cashew milk has a bit more fat (and a thicker texture). Try it in cream sauces and puddings if you’re looking to replace dairy milk in your recipes.

Nutrition information per serving: 35 calories, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 3.5 g fat, 0 g fiber

Try: Forager Project Organic Dairy-Free Cashewmilk Unsweetened

Forager Project, Organic Unsweetened Plain Cashewmilk
Forager Project

Macadamia Milk

Akin to cashew milk, nutrition-wise, this creamy white milk is delicious in coffee and desserts. Since it’s pricier and harder to find, it may be a better choice for special occasions.

Nutrition information per serving: 40 calories, 0 g sugar, 1 g protein, 3.5 g fat, 0 g fiber

Try: Milkadamia Milk Unsweetened

Milkadamia Unsweetened Milk
Milkadamia
Target

Coconut Milk

This creamy milk is low in calories and sugar, but relatively high in fat (4.5 grams per cup, of which four grams are saturated). It also offers zero protein and almost no calcium. Be sure to look for coconut milk “beverage,” since it has less fat than coconut milk that’s meant for cooking. Consider it an occasional choice.

Nutrition information per serving: 45 calories, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 4 1/2 g fat, 1 g fiber

Try: Pacific Foods Organic Coconut Plant-Based Beverage Original Unsweetened

Original Unsweetened Coconut Non-Dairy Beverage
Pacific Foods
thrivemarket.com
$3.19

Hemp Milk

This light brown milk provides some protein (3 grams) but also a sizable amount of fat (5 grams). Since it tastes slightly bitter and grassy, you might prefer to add sweetener.

Nutrition information per serving: 70 calories, 0 g sugar, 3 g protein, 5 g fat, 1g fiber

Try: Pacific Foods Hemp Plant-Based Beverage Original Unsweetened

Pacific Foods Hemp Original Unsweetened Plant-Based Beverage
Pacific Foods
Alpha XR
$9.99

Oat Milk

This sweet white milk sub offers 4 grams of protein (half as much as cow’s milk). Unfortunately, it also comes with 19 grams of sugar and 130 calories in an average serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 130 calories, 19 g sugar, 4 g protein, 2 1/2.5 g fat, 2 g fiber

Try: Oatly Oatmilk

Oatly The Original Oatmilk
Oatly
Target

Rice Milk

Rice milk offers few nutrients and packs almost double the calories of nut milk. Drinking it regularly can also increase arsenic levels, Chellam warned.

Nutrition information per serving: 70 calories, 0-1 g sugar, 0-1 g protein, 2-2 1/2 g fat, 0 g fiber

Try: Rice Dream Original Classic Rice Drink

RICE DREAM Classic Original Organic Rice Drink,
Dream (Imagine Non-Dairy)
walmart.com
$77.87

Soy Milk

With 7-10 grams of protein, plus lots of calcium, soy is the closest to cow’s milk in terms of nutrition. It’s also low in carbohydrates and saturated fat, Chellam said. Kirkpatrick recommends you look for products made with organic soy that’s whole (not isolated).

Nutrition information per serving: 90 calories, 2 g sugar, 7-10 g protein, 4 1/2 g fat, 2 g fiber

Try: Silk Unsweet Organic Soymilk

Silk Organic Unsweetened Soy Milk
Silk
walmart.com
$2.98

Dina Cheney is the author of "The New Milks: 100-Plus Dairy-Free Recipes for Making and Cooking with Soy, Nut, Seed, Grain, and Coconut Milks.”