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Which Milk Substitutes Are Best?

What are the differences between all the non-dairy alternatives?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
Episode #092

If you don’t drink cow’s milk, there are a lot of milk substitutes to choose from. You can buy milk made from soy, rice, almond, oat, 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.

The Different Types of 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.

1. Soy Milk is High in Protein

Soymilk is highest in protein. It’s the only one that’s comparable to cow’s milk, providing between 8 and 11 grams of protein per cup. Soy protein also has beneficial effects on cholesterol levels and may also help keep your bones strong

On the other hand, soy is a very common allergen. And, 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 Milk is a Good Source of Omega-3 Fats

Hemp milk is a relative new-comer on the alterna-milk scene. Its big claim to fame is that it is an excellent source of omega-3 fats. A single serving of hemp milk provides 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. It’s not terribly high in protein, however.                 

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 also contains monounsaturated fats, which are the same heart-healthy fats found in olive oil. Almond milk is fairly low in protein.

4. Oat Milk Provides Fiber

Oat milk offers fiber as well as a moderate amount of protein, about 4 grams per serving. However, it is on the higher end in terms of sugar and calories.

5. 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.

And all of the non-dairy milks are vegan and lactose-free, of course.

Which Milk Substitute is Best?

I suggest that you look for brands that keep the sugar to 12g or less and the sodium to no more than 100 mg per serving.

All in all, I’d say that soy and hemp offered the biggest nutritional benefits in terms of protein and omega-3 fats, respectively. Almond milk seemed to be the winner in terms of what it doesn’t contain: it’s relatively low in sugar and calories. Oat milk is higher in sugar and calories but does offer moderate amount of protein and fiber. Rice milk, in my analysis, brings up the rear. It doesn’t offer much in terms of protein or fiber and is among the highest in terms of sugar and calories.

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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. 

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