Choosing a Plant Based Milk Alternative

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPNutrition
Woman drinking glass of milk through a straw.

Non-dairy milks, also known as plant based milk alternatives, now take up a major section of grocery stores. There are countless types of these plant based milks. While they were once consumed nearly exclusively by those with dairy allergies or intolerance, they are now also used by those who have no issue digesting dairy whatsoever. Their increase in popularity stems from increasing concerns about the risks of excessive dairy consumption. Despite what the all-powerful dairy industry might have you think, dairy products including milk are not needed to meet calcium needs and are not needed to maintain strong bones. Dairy is not a unique source of nutrients, meaning that the calories, protein, fat, calcium and other nutrients found in dairy can also be found in other foods, and in some cases in non-dairy plant based milk alternatives. 

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a plant based milk. Certain milk alternatives might be preferred because they have a nutrient content very similar to dairy products. Others may be preferred because they naturally mix better into coffee and more closely resemble a milk-like consistency. Other plant based milk alternatives are chosen by consumers because they leave the smallest carbon footprint. Here we outline some of the most popular plant based milk alternatives and the top reasons for choosing each. 

Considerations When Choosing a Plant Based Milk

Fortification:

Fortified plant based milks refer to those products to which manufacturers have added certain nutrients. When it comes to plant based milks, the most commonly fortified nutrients include calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and DHA. Although this is not normally stated on the front of the plant based milk product, you can determine if a product is fortified by looking at the nutrition label. Listed under Daily Value (DV) for calcium and vitamin D the percentages should be between 20%-40% when fortified. Additionally, the ingredients will list words like calcium carbonate or tricalcium phosphate in a fortified product. 

Added Sugar or Sweeteners:

Many plant based milks contain added sugars. These can be difficult to identify without looking at the nutrition label. If you’re trying to optimize your health, it’s imperative to use plant based milks that do not have sugars added to them. Under the list of ingredients, added sugars can be listed as cane sugar, rice syrup, and more. Look for varieties that state “unsweetened” on the front of the product and that list 0 grams of added sugar on the nutrition label. 

Gums and Stabilizers:

Research on most food grade gums and stabilizers is inconclusive. While the gums and stabilizers used in plant based milks fall under the list of items that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS), the long term effects of these additives are unknown and controversial. Because it is now very easy to find plant based milks that do not contain gums or stabilizers, we recommend being careful about sourcing to avoid those with ingredients such as carrageenan or other words you don’t recognize (with the exception of the calcium and other terms of fortification). 

The Different Types of Plant Milks

Soy Milk:

Soy milk is made by soaking soybeans and grinding them, then boiling them until a milk-like liquid remains and straining out the large particles. It features a nutrient profile very similar to that of cow’s milk in regards to protein, fat, and calorie content. Varieties that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D are common. Soy milk is creamy in texture and blends well into coffee or tea. While some people avoid soy milk because of a fear of consuming soy products, soy is absolutely safe and recommended for those looking to optimize health, despite nutrition myths that suggest otherwise. One important thing to note is that if you choose soy milk, make sure that you choose organic varieties. While we recommend consuming organic foods whenever possible, this is particularly important with soy products because non-organic soy can be genetically modified and contain harmful toxins. 

Soy milk is our favorite plant based milk in terms of well balanced nutrition, mouthfeel, and taste. 

Almond Milk:

Probably the most popular of all plant based milks, almond milk has an unsurprisingly nutty flavor. Almond milk is significantly lower in calories and protein than dairy milk or soy milk. In terms of carbon footprint, all plant based milks are superior to dairy milk, as a glass of dairy milk results in nearly three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any plant based milk (1). However, almond milk requires more water to produce than most other plant based milks. Thus, if you’re choosing a plant based milk specifically for its impact on the environment, you may want to stick with soy milk. 

Almond milk does not have as thick or creamy a consistency as soy milk and does not mix as well with coffee as some other plant based milks. We have found that almond milk is a good substitute for dairy milk when used in baking. 

Oat Milk:

Oat milk has grown considerably in popularity over recent years. Oat milk is made by soaking and blending oats with water. Oat milk is thick, creamy, and has a beautifully oat-like taste that froths really well, making it a great substitute for milk in coffee beverages. Unfortunately, nearly all oat milks available for purchase are made with added oils. Often these are low quality seed oils, high in omega-6 fatty acids that can contribute to inflammation. However, recipes to make homemade oat milk often omit the oil and can be a great choice, though considerably more work than simply picking one up at the grocery store. If you are going to drink oat milk, source a product that does not contain added oils. Additionally, many oat milk products have added sugars, and from our experience, finding unsweetened oat milk is a bit more difficult than finding unsweetened soy milk or almond milk. For individuals who are avoiding gluten due to gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, oat milk may not be the best choice as most products are not made with certified gluten free oats. 

Pea Milk:

While pea milk is not quite as popular as many other plant based milks, it offers a great nutritional profile. Pea milk is made from yellow split peas. Like soy milk, it is high in protein and is lower in calories than dairy milk. In fact, the proteins are isolated from the rest of the components of the peas to make this plant based milk. As a result, most pea milks have added emulsifiers to stabilize the product and improve the texture. Pea milk is creamy and mild and works great in coffee, but may not be a good choice for those looking to avoid gums and emulsifiers. 

Coconut Milk:

Coconut milk is tropical tasting and naturally sweet, so if you’re looking to add a touch of sweetness to your morning coffee without any added sugar, coconut milk might be the way to go. Coconut milk is made from blending grated coconut with boiling water and then separating the liquid. Coconut milk is low in protein compared to dairy milk, soy milk, or pea milk. While drinkable coconut milk has less fat than canned coconut milk used for cooking and baking, coconut milk is higher in saturated fats than other plant based milks. It does contain some medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are often used by individuals trying to achieve mild ketosis. It should be noted that coconut milk does not have nearly as much MCT as does coconut oil, and is not recommended as a product to specifically promote ketosis. 

Hemp Milk:

Hemp milk consists of hemp seeds blended with water. At this time hemp milk seems to vary in popularity depending on geographic location. Hemp milk tends to be more expensive than some of the more common plant based milks. It has a creamy texture, similar to dairy milk, and froths and mixes with coffee relatively easily. From our experience, most hemp milks contain gums and other emulsifiers, which is something to note for those looking to avoid these ingredients.

Rice Milk:

Rice milk is low in protein and similar to dairy milk in caloric content. In general, when not fortified rice milk has the lowest nutritional value out of the more popular plant based milks. Rice milk is rich in carbohydrates that can result in a spike in blood glucose levels in some people. Like almond milk, rice milk leaves a larger carbon footprint than most other plant based milks, though still significantly less than dairy milk. From our experience, rice milk tastes watery and does not mix well into coffee. 

Still curious about the best plant based milk alternative for you and your unique needs? Sign up with the Amos Institute today where you can get all of your questions during our weekly Office Hours sessions. 


References: 

  1. Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987–992.