With the growing trend of reducing or eliminating dairy from one’s diet for health, animal welfare, and/or environmental reasons, a number of non-dairy alternatives to milk have been made available at grocery stores to help consumers make the switch. In order to create a nutrient profile similar to that of cow’s milk, plant-based milks (PBMs) have also been formulated to provide comparable amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. However, not all PBMs are created equal.
When shopping for your dairy alternative, look for these key nutrients:
- Calcium: As a key nutrient in maintaining bone health, most brands of PBMs will at least be fortified with calcium. While the phytic acid found in plant foods, such as soy, is thought to interfere with the absorption of calcium, research suggests that the absorption of calcium from plant milks is similar to that of cow’s milk. A milk providing at least 20% of the daily value for calcium is considered an excellent source, but you can find many brands that contain 30-45% of the daily recommendation.
- Vitamin D: Another building block of bone health, quite a few brands of PBMs will contain vitamin D in addition to calcium. Look for a variety that contains at least 20% the daily value for vitamin D.
- Protein: A cup of cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein. Depending on the plant source and brand variety, a cup of PBM will provide anywhere from 1-10 grams of protein. If choosing a lower protein PBM, be sure to pair it with a high protein food, such as a cereal with nuts, to make up the difference and create a more filling meal or snack.
- B12: As B12 is found primarily in animal products, choosing a PBM that has been fortified with B12 can be an easy way to meet the recommendation of a vitamin that plant-based eaters are at risk for deficiency in. B12 fortification of PBMs is not as common as calcium and vitamin D fortification, but many brands contain 25-50% of the daily value for B12.
As with any food, be wary of added sugars. Most brands of PBMs offer unsweetened, sweetened, and chocolate-flavored varieties of each type of milk. Choose unsweetened varieties for everyday consumption, and use sweetened and flavored varieties as an occasional treat.
Which Kind of Plant-Based Milk is Right for Me?
- Soy Milk: Perfect for drinking by the glass with breakfast or as a snack, soy milk is generally a good alternative to cow’s milk because it is high in protein (7-9 g per serving) and commonly fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B12. It has a neutral flavor that tastes great on its own or pairs well with cereal or coffee. The calorie content ranges from 80-130 calories per cup.
- Coconut Milk: Try this as a coffee flavoring or use as a cooking liquid for soups, stews, curries, and rice. Coconut milk is typically fortified with key nutrients, and unsweetened varieties still have a slight sweet flavor from the coconut. This variety is also low in calories (about half the calories compared to soy milk), but typically contains no protein. Be careful not to confuse the carton coconut milk used for drinking with the canned coconut milk used commonly used for cooking Thai dishes.
- Rice Milk: For those allergic to soy and nuts, rice milk may be a good dairy-free alternative. The calorie content of rice milk is comparable to that of soy milk, but like coconut milk, rice milk also contains almost no protein. Some brands may have less calcium, vitamin D, and B12 then other types of plant milks of the same brand. Rice milk has a mild sweet flavor, but some describe the texture as watery.
- Almond and Cashew: Nut milks taste great with high protein cereals or in coffee. While whole nuts are a great source of protein, nut milks tends to have very little protein. Like coconut milk, nut milks are low in calories (25-40 calories per serving). However, nut milks are an excellent source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that plays a role in immune function.
- Oat: Another nut and soy free milk for those with allergies, oat milk is tasty in a glass on its own. Oat milk is made from whole-grain oats and has a mildly sweet flavor. While not as high in protein as soy milk, the oats provide 4 grams of protein in one cup’s serving of milk. This type of milk is less common than soy, coconut, and almond milks, and varieties without added sugar are difficult to find.
- Hemp: For dairy-free baking, try using hemp milk in place of cow’s milk in any recipe. Choose hemp milk if you prefer a creamier texture. Hemp milk can substitute dairy milk in baking. It is higher in healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids then other PBMs, and has about 3-4 grams of protein per serving. Depending on the brand, hemp milk typically contains 15-30 more calories per cup than soy milk.