It wasn’t too long ago that “milk” only meant cow’s milk. However, those days have changed, as a host of non-dairy, plant-based milk alternatives are available on the market. There are plenty of options for anyone who is lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy products, or chooses not to consume milk from an animal, but a question arises: which vegan option does your body good? Cow’s milk and other dairy products have long been recommended as a key part of a healthy diet because they provide several important nutrients such as vitamin D, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and protein. Plant-based milks don’t necessarily contain these vital nutrients. The truth is that milk alternatives aren’t really milk at all. Instead, they’re made from ground seeds, nuts, grains, beans, peas, or lentils and water. Then, nutrients, sugars, thickeners, and other agents might be added to improve consistency or extend the shelf life of the product. Each kind of vegan milk has a unique nutritional profile depending on what base is used, how it’s processed, and whether it’s fortified. Also, the nutrient composition can differ between brands within each product category. A good rule of thumb is to look for a non-dairy milk that 30 percent of the Daily Value for calcium and 25 percent of the Daily Value of vitamin D. Also, you should also try to avoid milk substitutes with added sugars, and instead choose unsweetened options. Because vegan milk is becoming the new standard, here are nutrition basics of some popular milk alternatives to help you navigate your next trip to the grocery store.
Made from ground soybeans, soy milk is a popular replacement for cow’s milk, and it’s easy to find. Because fortified soy milk has the closest nutritional profile to cow’s milk, it’s the only plant-based milk substitute included in the dairy group of the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Of all the dairy-free milks, soy milk contains the most protein, with approximately eight grams of protein per cup, while unsweetened versions have approximately 110 calories per cup.
Almond milk is another common milk alternative. Made from almonds, almond milk is lower in calories than many other dairy-milk alternatives, with unsweetened varieties containing anywhere between 30–50 calories per cup. Almond milk is naturally low in protein (containing only one gram per cup), but many brands are now fortified with protein, along with calcium and other nutrients.
Different from canned coconut milk and coconut water, the coconut milk that’s considered a dairy-milk substitute is made from coconut cream. Unsweetened coconut milk contains approximately 46 calories per cup, but it’s higher in fat than most other milk alternatives, and most of that (approximately four grams per cup) comes from unhealthy saturated fat. This milk substitute doesn’t naturally have any protein.
Of all of the alternatives to cow’s milk, rice milk tends to be the most allergy-friendly for people with certain food allergies (because it’s made from rice and is nut- and soy-free). At approximately 113 calories per cup, unsweetened rice milk is low in fat (two grams per cup), but it’s also very low in protein, with less than one gram per cup.
Hemp and flaxseed milks
Sometimes sold together, hemp milk and flaxseed milk are unique because they each come with good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids, which are sometimes lacking in vegan diets. However, neither of these seed-based milks is naturally a good source of protein. Hemp milk has only two grams per cup, while flax milk doesn’t have any protein. An unsweetened hemp- and flax-milk blend includes approximately 46 calories per cup.
Which alternative is best?
In addition to having different nutrition profiles, dairy-milk substitutes also vary in taste and texture. Know that one milk might taste best in your coffee while another might work better as a soup ingredient. Fortified soy milk is the closest vegan substitute to cow’s milk from a nutritional standpoint, so if you’re looking for a milk alternative to replace the dairy in your diet, soy milk is likely your best bet. However, soy milk isn’t the ideal option for everyone. If you go with a different milk substitute, make sure you’re eating enough of other foods with protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients. If you have food allergies, ask your doctor or registered dietitian which milk substitute is the best choice for you.
Amy Magill, MA, RD, LDN, is Manager of Clinical Programs at Walgreens, where you can find a variety of vitamins to supplement your diet and improve digestion. She enjoys writing about how eating habits can affect overall health and the importance of choosing nutrient-rich foods.