Milk Alternatives: Which Kind is Right For You?
Annette Washington, MS, RDN, LDN
There are many reasons why you may be looking for milk alternatives. Maybe you are lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy, don't like milk, are trying to be healthier, want to reduce inflammation, or have environmental concerns. Regardless of the reason, there is plant-based milk for everyone. Plant-based milks are not new, but more varieties are becoming popular, and it can leave you feeling confused as to which one you should choose. So, let's discuss which milk would be best for your lifestyle.
What is Plant-Based Milk?
Plant-based milk is a dairy alternative made from plants (hence, the name). Nuts, grains, or legumes are soaked in water until soft, then blended in a high-speed blender. After thoroughly blended and strained, they are flavored or sweetened. When purchasing these items at a grocery store, look for unsweetened varieties to keep your added sugar consumption low.
You may have seen some of these plant-based milks at your local grocery store. The popular ones are soy, almond, cashew, oat, coconut, rice, and pea protein milk. However, specialty stores may have even more unique versions like flaxseed, quinoa, hemp, peanut, or banana milk.
Choosing a milk alternative that is perfect for your lifestyle depends on what you are looking for in your milk.
Those individuals who are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, or those looking for an after-work out drink, may want their dairy alternative to be high in protein. In that case, the clear winner will be Pea Protein Milk. This milk may be a little trickier to find, but it's a great source of protein (8-10 grams per cup), and many brands boast 50% more calcium than cow's milk. Pea protein milk is also an excellent option for individuals who have soy allergies or sensitivities.
Another excellent protein option would be Soy Milk. Soy milk has less saturated fat and calories than cow's milk, but almost identical protein (7 grams per cup) and calcium. Soy milk is one of the first milk alternatives, which means you don't have to look hard for this option, and it is potentially cheaper.
If you are looking for a low-calorie alternative to cow's milk, then Almond Milk or Cashew Milk are the choices here. Unsweetened almond and cashew milk have only 25-40 calories per 1 cup, which is significantly less than 1% cow's milk at 110 calories. They are creamy and great to use in smoothies. However, if you have any nut allergies or environmental concerns, this milk will probably not be for you. In that case, try Coconut Milk. At 45 calories per 1 cup, it is still very low-calorie. While coconut milk is high in saturated fat, research shows that drinking coconut milk does not affect your cholesterol and may help with weight loss.
Perhaps you are struggling with diabetes or pre-diabetes, and you would like your milk to be low in carbohydrates. There are a few options that meet this requirement. Cow's milk has 12 g of carbs per cup. Almond milk (1-2 g per cup), Coconut milk (7 g per cup), and Pea Protein milk (6 g per cup) are all lower in carbohydrates than cow's milk, if you purchase the unsweetened varieties.
Looking for something for extra? Oat Milk is the only milk that has fiber (2-3 g per cup), which makes this milk more likely to keep you full for longer. If you have allergies to dairy, soy, tree nuts, or gluten, Rice Milk is the best option for you. It is allergen-free, great in cold cereal, and only has 70 calories per cup. If you are watching your sodium, you should reach for a glass of Coconut Milk as it has the lowest amount of sodium at 55 mg per 1 cup vs. 120 mg in 1 cup of cow's milk. If you are looking for a dairy alternative that has similar calcium (30%) or vitamin D (25%) as cow's milk, choose a fortified option. Many of the plant-based milks have equal or more calcium and vitamin D than cow's milk.
Plant-based milks are great options to add to your diet, regardless of the reason, and they can be healthy options if purchasing unsweetened. Whether you want something new, or your health and lifestyle dictate your preferences, you can find plant-based milk for you. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to try some of these milks. Who knows, you may find healthier milk that you love more than cow's milk!