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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.

What about Calcium and Vitamin D?

Cow’s milk is a major source of calcium and vitamin D and non-dairy milks are not naturally high in these nutrients. Some brands are fortified to make them comparable to cow’s milk as a source of calcium and vitamin D—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 cholicalciferol.  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 it into a dessert. 

Even in the plain, unflavored milks that I compared, added sugars sometimes ranged as high as 20 g per serving. That’s more than a tablespoon of sugar in each cup. Sodium ranged from 25 to 180 mg per serving.  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. That’s similar to the amount of natural sugar and sodium present in cow’s milk.

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 the runaway favorite and oat seemed the least popular. Several people mentioned that they liked soy or hemp for their creaminess, which makes sense because they are both higher in fat.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Non-Dairy Milk

Some people seem to 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 different kinds of non-dairy milks 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. And there’s no reason that people who drink cow’s milk couldn’t do the same!

If you have a nutrition question for me, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. If tweeting is more your thing, I also have a handy little Twitter account. 

You can also search the archives using the search box at the top of the page. There’s a good chance I might have already answered your question in a previous article.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

Milk image from Shutterstock

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