What's the Best Non-Dairy Milk Substitute?

If you don't want to (or can't) drink cow's milk, there are lots of non-dairy alternatives. How do they compare nutritionally?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
7-minute read
Episode #585
The Quick And Dirty
  • The best non-dairy option will depend on your nutritional priorities.
  • If you’re concerned about calcium or vitamin D, choose fortified non-dairy milk.
  • Choose unsweetened varieties to avoid excess added sugar.
  • Non-dairy milk is not appropriate to use as baby formula.

For those who avoid dairy products, there are a lot of milk substitutes to choose from. You can buy non-diary alternatives made from soy, rice, almond, oat, coconut, peas, or hemp. Is there any reason to choose one over the others? For that matter, are any of these more nutritious than cow’s milk? It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you don’t eat meat, for example, you might want to choose one that’s higher in protein. If you’re watching your weight, on the other hand, you might prefer one that’s lower in calories.

Comparing non-dairy milk substitutes

I compared a dozen different types and brands of non-dairy milk to see how they stacked up nutritionally. In each case, I chose the plain, unsweetened versions, or as close to that as I could get. I did include both original and “light” (reduced fat) varieties when possible. Here are the most popular milk alternatives and the nutritional pros and cons of each. All of the non-dairy milks are vegan and lactose-free, of course.

1. Soy and pea milk are both high in protein

Soy and pea milk are the highest in protein, providing between 8 and 11 grams of protein per cup, which is comparable to cow's milk. Legumes such as soybeans and yellow peas are also a relatively complete source of protein, although not quite as complete as dairy.

RELATED: How to build muscle on a plant-based diet

Soy protein also has beneficial effects on cholesterol levels and may also help keep your bones strong. But, as I talked about in episode 21 (Pros and Cons of Soy) there are a few reasons that you don’t want to overdo it with soy. I suggest keeping it to no more than three servings a day. If you eat a lot of other soy-based foods, you might want to choose a different type of milk.

2. Hemp, walnut, and flax milk are a good source of omega-3 fats

Hemp, flax, and walnut milk are all relative newcomers to the alterna-milk scene. All are excellent sources of omega-3 fats, a nutrient that is often lacking in the Western diet. If your diet does not include fish, this could be a way to fill that gap.   

A single serving can provide an entire day’s recommended intake of omega-3 fats. That’s about four times as much as you’d get in soy milk and six times as much as you’d get from cow’s milk. None of these options are terribly high in protein, however.

RELATED: Omega-6 and Non-Dairy Milk

3. Almond milk is lower in calories

If you’re counting calories, almond milk tends to be quite a bit lower in calories and sugar than most of the other non-dairy milks. It's also fairly low in protein. But don't expect the same benefits you'd get from eating almonds. Virtually all of the fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that make almonds so healthy have been removed. 

Although almond milk has long been one of the most popular non-dairy options, several other nut milks have entered the market, including those made from hazelnuts, cashews, and as mentioned earlier, walnuts. If you're looking for one to make at home, I have found cashew milk to be the easiest and best-tasting. Here's the recipe I use.

Nut milks (including those made from almonds, walnuts, and cashews) use more water to create than other non-dairy options because nuts are very water-intensive crops. Nonetheless, almond and other nut milks use less water to produce than cow’s milk. If water usage is important to you, soy or oat milk are the least water-intensive to produce.

4. Rice milk is non-allergenic

Rice milk is one you’re least likely to be allergic to. However, it’s the lowest in protein and tends to be higher in sugar and calories. Although rice is not quite as water-intensive to grow as nuts, it's not far behind in terms of water use.

5. Oat milk provides fiber

Oat milk is another newer entry into the nondairy field. People tend to like its creamy texture, especially in coffee. It's also a more sustainable option than nut- or rice-based milks. Another plus is a small amount of fiber. We’re only taking 1 or 2 grams per serving, but oat fiber has some unique benefits in terms of lowering blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Oat milk may be a great option for those with nut allergies, for whom nut milks are off the menu.

With 2-4 grams of protein per serving, oat milk is lower in protein than cow’s milk or soymilk but higher than most rice and almond milk. Oat milk may also be a great option for those with nut allergies, for whom nut milks are off the menu.

6. Coconut milk

With all the buzz around coconut oil and coconut water lately, it was probably inevitable that a coconut-based milk alternative would appear on the already overcrowded shelves in the non-dairy aisle. But as with all the other coconut-based products, the health benefits of coconut milk are modest. Plain unsweetened coconut milk is very low in calories and carbohydrates, with only about half as many calories as skim milk. However, coconut milk contains no protein and is often described as watery and tasteless.

Although both are referred to as "coconut milk," the coconut-based beverage you'll find next to the almond and soy milk is not to be confused with the coconut milk you'll find in the canned food or international foods aisle. Canned coconut milk is made from blending coconut milk and water into a rich, creamy liquid that's quite high in fat and calories. This is the ingredient called for in curry, desserts, and Asian cuisine.

What about calcium and vitamin D?

Cow’s milk is a major source of calcium and vitamin D in the Western diet. Non-dairy milks are not naturally high in these nutrients. Many brands are fortified to make them a source of calcium and vitamin D comparable to cow’s milk, but not all are. Check the label to see exactly what you’re getting, especially if you’re counting on these foods to help you meet your requirements.

You’ll see the calcium listed in the nutrition facts label. You can also see what nutrients have been added by reading the ingredient list. Calcium is easy to recognize. Vitamin D might be listed as calciferol or cholecalciferol. You can remember that these refer to vitamin D because they each contain “calci” as part of the name. That’s because vitamin D works with calcium to make strong bones.

Non-dairy milks can be high in sugar and sodium

But nutrients aren’t the only things that get added to non-dairy milks. Many, if not most, also contain added sugar, salt, and other things to improve the flavor. Sometimes, they improve the flavor so much that they actually turn the milk into a dessert. 

Even in the plain, unflavored milks that I compared, added sugars sometimes ranged as high as 20 grams per serving. That’s more than a tablespoon of sugar in each cup. Sodium ranged from 25 to 180 milligrams per serving. I suggest that you look for brands that keep the sugar to 12 grams or less and the sodium to no more than 100 milligrams per serving. That’s similar to the amount of natural sugar and sodium present in cow’s milk.

Best for kids?

I often hear from parents who want to know which non-dairy milk they should give to their kids. No non-dairy milk is appropriate for use as baby formula. Once kids are eating table foods, however, any of the non-dairy options would be fine.  

No non-dairy milk is appropriate for use as baby formula.

Obviously, you'll want to avoid ingredients that your child is allergic to, such as soy or nuts. But a soy or pea-based beverage will provide the most protein for growing bodies. A brand that's fortified with calcium and D will help build strong bones. 

With childhood obesity rates on the rise, you might think that one of the lower-calorie options would be a good choice. But kids who drink full fat cow's milk, for example, tend to be leaner than kids who drink skim milk. (The same is true of adults, by the way.) And kids, especially toddlers, need fat for healthy brain development. 

It's important to keep our kids at a healthy weight, but teaching them healthy eating and lifestyle habits will go a lot further than feeding them reduced-calorie foods. Build meals and snacks around whole and minimally processed foods; limit added sugars, highly processed foods, and snacks; and encourage more physical activity. 

Which milk substitute tastes best?

The other big question is whether one tastes better than the other, and that appears to be very much a matter of personal preference. I did an informal poll on my Facebook page, asking which non-dairy milk people preferred. Each had its advocates, but almond milk seemed to be a favorite. Several people mentioned that they liked soy or hemp for their creaminess, which makes sense because they're both higher in fat. Some people keep more than one type on hand for different uses. For example, one listener says she likes rice milk to drink but soy milk on her cereal

If you’ve got room in the fridge, using a couple of different kinds of non-dairy milk might be a way to get the best of all worlds. Some soy milk on your cereal gives your breakfast a little extra protein. Hemp milk in your smoothie can add some omega-3 fats to your diet. Or, a glass of chilled almond milk might make a refreshing low-calorie snack.

If you drink cow's milk, there's no reason not to mix it up a bit by adding different types of non-dairy milk.

And if you drink cow's milk, there's no reason not to mix it up a bit by adding different types of non-dairy milk. In my own fridge, you'll find cow's milk, soymilk, and homemade cashew milk. Most of the cow's milk gets cultured into kefir or yogurt. I like soymilk in my iced coffee and lattes and cashew milk is my favorite for cooking.

When it comes to choosing a non-dairy milk alternative, you'll want to consider your own nutritional needs and priorities as well as the foods that make up the rest of your diet and your own taste preferences. Fortunately, with so many available options, there is bound to be one or more that fit the bill. 

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.