Looking for a Milk Substitute? Plant-Based Milk Alternatives Compared
Whether you are allergic to lactose or eat a plant-based diet, you may choose to only consume plant-based, non-dairy products – but which one?
If you haven’t noticed, there are a dizzying array of plant-based milk varieties on grocery store shelves these days. When you go in search of a non-dairy milk, you’ll be confronted with a long list of contenders including:
- Coconut milk
- Almond milk
- Hazelnut milk
- Macadamia nut milk
- Walnut milk
- Cashew milk
- Oat milk
- Hemp milk
- Rice milk
- Soy milk
- Flaxseed milk
With so many choices, you might feel overwhelmed! Of course, taste is one consideration but so is nutritional value. Let’s try to cut through some of the confusion.
What is Plant-Based Milk?
Plant-based milk substitutes are made by extracting various components from nuts or seeds. For example, manufacturers make almond milk by extracting the liquid component of the almond. You can actually make almond milk at home using a blender and strainer and one benefit is your milk is ONLY made of almonds and water. Commercial almond milk has added ingredients, like emulsifiers, to give it greater texture.
Of note, some plant-based milk, depending on the manufacturer, contains carrageenan, an emulsifier that comes from seaweed. Unfortunately, some studies in animals’ link carrageenan with intestinal inflammation. Until we know more about this, stick with plant-based milk that’s free of carrageenan. They’re out there.
You might have visions of plant-based milk substitute being loaded with nutrients. After all, almond milk comes from almond and almonds are a good source of vitamin E, magnesium, and vitamin B2.Unfortunately, unenhanced plant-based milk doesn’t contain a lot of nutrition. That’s because the plant-based component only makes up a small part of the milk. For example, a glass of almond milk contains a modest number of almonds. So, manufacturers add in vitamins and minerals to plant-based milk to make it more nutritious.
To read more about the pros and cons of dairy milk vs. plant-based milk, read this article.
Now, let’s look at some of the specific plant-based milk varieties on the market and their pros and cons.
Plant-Based Milk Substitute: Soy Milk
Soy milk is the “original” plant-based milk. At one time, it was the ONLY option available, unless you made your own. The biggest benefit of soy milk is its high protein content. Soy milk typically contains more protein than any other type of plant-based milk, with about 8 grams per glass.
However, soy is a bit controversial. Soy foods and beverages contain phytoestrogens, weak forms of the female sex hormone estrogen. Soybeans also contain “anti-nutrients,” compounds that reduce the absorption of some minerals. The phytoestrogens in soy may be beneficial in terms of reducing the risk of breast cancer. When these weak phytoestrogens bind to breast tissue, they block the stronger form of estrogen your body produces.
As a result, some studies show that soy may lower the risk of breast cancer since it competes with more powerful forms of estrogen – but not all experts agree. Until we know more, avoid soy beverages and soy if you’ve had breast cancer or another hormone-related cancer. Based on the studies, I’ve read soy more than likely offers protective benefits by blocking the effect of more potent estrogens on breast tissue.
In addition, soy milk contains a variety of natural plant-based compounds like saponins and phytic acid that help lower cholesterol. Plus, soy milk is naturally lower in carbohydrates and calories relative to dairy milk. Soy milk is the only milk that’s allowed to carry a “may lower the risk of heart disease” claim on its packaging.
One other thing to be aware of. The phytic acid in soymilk may reduce the absorption of some minerals, including calcium, in this popular milk alternative. So, you may not get as much calcium as is listed on the label due to the phytic acid in soy. Keep in mind, phytic acid only blocks absorption of minerals while you’re drinking it, not at subsequent meals.
What to Look for: One reason to choose soy milk is that it’s high in protein. Look for a brand that contains no added sugar and has at least 30% of your daily value of calcium and 25% of daily value of vitamin D. Another concern: most soybeans are genetically modified. To avoid GMOs, buy organic soymilk.
Taste downside: Soymilk, particularly unsweetened, can taste a little “beany.”
The other big class of plant-based milk substitutes is nut milk. These include options like almond, macadamia, walnut, hazelnut, and cashew milk. As mentioned, most milk alternatives don’t have a lot of nuts in them but the quantity varies. If you’re trying to get protein from the milk you drink, nut milk falls short. For example, most almond milk has only about one gram of protein per glass, although some brands add other plant proteins to boost the protein content.
Another issue to consider is calcium. Nut milk is not a good source of calcium naturally but most manufacturers add calcium to their product to give it roughly the same calcium content as cow’s milk. As with soy, you can find nut milk that delivers up to 30% of your daily calcium requirement. Many manufacturers also add vitamin D to nut milk but always check the label to see what you’re getting.
What to look for: As with soy milk, look for one that has at least 30% of your daily value of calcium and 25% of vitamin D daily value. Unsweetened is best. Who needs the added sugar? You can always add a touch of a natural sweetener like Stevia. Try different nut milk to see which you prefer. To us, cashew milk is the creamiest.
Downsides: Lower in protein than soy milk and contains few nuts. May contain a lot of added sugar if you don’t choose the right brand.
When we talk about coconut milk, it’s actually the coconut milk beverage you buy in cartons, not the coconut milk you find in cans. Coconut milk beverage is lower in calories and fat than the kind you buy in cans. Compared to other nut milk, coconut milk is a bit higher in saturated fat and often has a texture that’s creamier than other varieties.
What to look for: Again, look for unsweetened varieties and one with few additives. Avoid brands that contain carrageenan.
Other Plant-Based Milk Replacements
While soymilk, coconut, and nut milk of various types make up the bulk of the plant-based milk market, rice milk, hemp milk, and oat milk are also available.
The best thing about rice milk as a milk substitute is that it’s safe if you have food allergies. Nut allergies are relatively common and being allergic to nuts precludes drinking any type of nut milk. Some people are allergic or sensitive to soy as well. Other than being easily digested and a good choice if you have allergies, rice milk doesn’t have a lot to recommend it and it’s not a good choice for diabetics. Rice milk is low in calories but relatively high in carbohydrates and has a rather thin consistency and lacks flavor.
On its own, rice milk is pretty weak in the nutritional department – low in protein and naturally low in calcium. It has to be fortified to supply you with enough calcium. There are better options available unless you have food allergies. You probably won’t find the taste to be as pleasing as some of the other plant-based milk alternatives.
Oat milk has a naturally sweet flavor, although some brands contain added sugar to account for that sweetness. It also contains more antioxidants than some plant-based milk alternatives. Oat milk is low in protein and relatively high in carbohydrates. So, don’t count on oat milk to meet your protein needs.
Hemp milk isn’t as popular as the other milk substitute options. That may partially have to do with taste. It has a somewhat grainy taste that doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. Having tried it, I can vouch for that! On the plus side, it’s higher in protein than other forms of plant-based milk, with the exception of soy milk. It’s the only one to contain a significant amount of plant-based omega-3s. So, you might like hemp milk for its nutritional profile but find that it falls short on taste.
Which Plant-Based Milk is Best for You?
Taste and nutrition are two top considerations when choosing a plant-based milk. Hemp and soy milk rank high on the nutritional scale but you may find soy milk to be too “beany” and hemp milk to be too “grainy.” In terms of nutrition. Here’s what to look for:
- Does it supply at least 30% of daily value of calcium and 25% of vitamin D?
- Am I using it as a significant source of protein? (Soy and hemp are better here)
- Am I allergic to nuts or soy (Rice milk)?
- Does it contain carrageenan?
- Is there added sugar?
Of course, you want a milk alternative that makes your taste buds happy too. So, experiment a bit and try a variety of plant-based milk varieties. These days, you have a ton of alternatives!
Make Your Own
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even make your own homemade, plant-based milk. The advantage is you’ll avoid the additives that most store-bought plant-based milk contains. Having made soy and almond milk, I can tell you the finished product tastes better too. I use an organic nut bag as a strainer for the milk or you can get fancy and buy a stainless steel nut milk maker. One is quicker than the other but it’s more of an investment.
Now to you. What’s your favorite plant-based milk and have you ever made your own?
Ornish Living. “Need Milk? A Simple Guide to Plant-Based MIlk”
BCC Research. “Got Plant-Based Milk? Milk-Alternatives Market Booming, Reports BCC Research”
USA Today. “Coconut milk? Almond? Soy? How alternatives stack up”