Bored with plain old soy milk? Here's everything you need to know about the ever expanding milk aisle.
If your local coffee shop’s menu has grown more confusing in the past few years, you’re not alone. Nondairy milk alternatives have expanded to include a wide variety of options (pea milk, anyone?), all of which maintain a healthy reputation. It can be tricky to keep them straight, much less sort out which ones are actually good for you—and which are worth the price. As with most nutrition questions, those answers vary from person to person. “Don’t assume that all plant-based milks are all created equal,” says Lori Nedescu, a registered dietitian nutritionist and professional bike racer. “If you line these products up, they’re all nutritionally different from cow’s milk. Think of these alternatives as the liquid form of their original food.”
Whether you’re eating around dietary restrictions or simply looking for a new flavor profile, more protein, or an eco-friendly option, here’s what you need to know about the many products masquerading as milk.
Good old cow’s milk is relatively cheap (around $1.50 per half-gallon), easy to find, and seriously good for you. “If we were going to be stranded on an island, milk would be an amazing food to have,” Nedescu says. “It has fat, protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and B vitamins. It covers a lot of our nutrition bases.” A cup of whole milk nets just under 150 calories, with 12 grams of carbohydrates and eight grams of protein, so it naturally acts as an ideal recovery beverage postworkout. It also contains around 25 percent of your recommended calcium and vitamin D intake, plus 10 percent of recommended potassium.
The presence of both naturally occurring and genetically modified hormones in dairy today has hurt milk’s reputation as a healthy part of a balanced diet. All milk contains small levels of hormones like various estrogens, but organic brands like Stonyfield will help you steer clear of GMOs like rBST. Just remember that organic milk increases the price to around $3 per half-gallon. “I think it’s worth springing for the organic,” says Nedescu.
However, across the board, cow’s milk has the most detrimental environmental impact: according to an Oxford review of over 150 studies, a single glass of cow’s milk uses more land and three times the greenhouse-gas emissions of any of the plant-based alternatives.
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 65 percent of the human population (and 90 percent of adults of East Asian ancestry) have a reduced ability to digest lactose, a complex sugar found in milk, after infancy. Lactose-free milk has a nutrition profile similar to regular milk and offers a nice compromise for those who can’t digest the standard stuff, says Matt Fitzgerald, a certified sports nutritionist and the bestselling author of Racing Weight and Diet Cults. Lactose-free milk isn’t made by removing lactose. Instead, manufacturers add the enzyme lactase, which breaks lactose down into easily digested sugars.
While there’s no downside to lactose-free milk other than a slight increase in price, it can be harder to find. It also tastes slightly sweeter than regular milk, since our tongue recognizes simple sugars as sweeter than complex ones.
Goat’s milk contains less lactose than cow’s milk and is more nutritionally dense, with 168 calories per cup and around ten grams each of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. “It has great body and flavor,” says Nedescu. The creamier texture also makes it a favorite for lattes and cooking.
But it isn’t easy to find in your average grocery store. Whole Foods stocks several brands, and small specialty stores might have a few options available. It’s also the priciest on the list, at around $10 for a half-gallon. Unlike cow’s milk, the flavor of goat’s milk can change depending on goat breed and processing, so you may find that some brands taste sweet and mild, while others have a strong, more pungent flavor.
Unsweetened rice milk is primarily carbohydrates, with 11 grams per one-cup serving, and while it doesn’t contain any protein, the carb-heavy base makes it ideal for preworkout fueling. At 70 calories per cup, it sits between cow’s milk and almond milk on the caloric spectrum, and it contains 25 percent of your daily calcium requirement.
“Often rice milk contains brown-rice syrup in addition to just plain rice, and that’s sugar by another name,” says Fitzgerald. “I encourage people to look for milk alternatives that aren’t sweetened, and rice milk is a big offender.” Check the label for other common additives, like canola oil, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum, used to thicken the texture. At $6 for a half-gallon, it’s slightly more expensive than almond milk.
This other recently trendy milk alternative has more fat and protein than almond or rice milk, with 4.7 grams of protein and 7.3 grams of fat (in the form of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) per 83-calorie serving. Unlike many plant-based options, it contains complete proteins with the full range of amino acids, which makes it ideal for a postworkout recovery smoothie.
Like other alternatives, be wary of the ingredient list when purchasing hemp milk at your local natural grocery store—often it’s fortified with sugars, thickeners, and vitamins A, B12, and D to mimic cow’s milk. A half-gallon will run around $8.
Almond milk is great if you’re looking for a traditional milk flavor and texture with fewer calories. But unsweetened, unfortified versions of almond milk are simply not nutritionally dense. A serving of unsweetened almond milk is around 40 calories, primarily from fat.
Almonds themselves have a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids that are considered helpful for weight loss, and marketing for almond milk can give the impression that each bottle is packed with almonds. But a lawsuit against Silk (one of the largest milk-alternative brands) in 2015 alleged that each bottle contained less than 2 percent almonds. The environmental impact is also worth noting: 80 percent of nuts used in almond milk are grown in drought-prone California, yet it takes over a gallon of water to produce a single almond.
Almond milk is available in a wide range of price points. You can buy shelf-stable boxes for under $4 per half-gallon, or spend around $5 for a half-gallon of fresh, refrigerated versions from brands like Califia Farms, or make it at home by soaking almonds and running them through the food processor before straining them.
A 2018 study that compared plant-based milk alternatives found soy to have the most balanced nutritional profile of the bunch. Silk’s version—it’s one of the original soy-milk producers—has 80 calories per cup, with four grams of fat, seven grams of protein, and three grams of carbohydrates, making it similar in protein and fat to a glass of 2 percent milk. Silk also fortifies its soy milk with vitamins A, D2, and B12, and adds gellan gum to make it thicker.
Soy milk is the cheapest of the plant-based options—it costs anywhere from $1 to $3 for a half-gallon—and is the easiest to find in any grocery store, since it’s been on the market the longest. The major downside is that soy milk doesn’t respond well to heat, curdling at high temperatures. That’s why almond milk has become a popular coffee-shop milk alternative.
Oat milk has grown in popularity in recent years, even sneaking onto select Starbucks menus in the past month. “It’s very big in lattes now, thanks to its creamier texture,” says Nedescu. It’s also closer to cow’s milk in terms of caloric content: 120 calories per cup, packing 16 grams of carbs and five grams of fat into each serving. “Before a workout, an oat milk that’s a little higher in carbohydrates is a good choice,” says Nedescu.
Since oat milk is often fortified—Oatly, for instance, adds vitamins A, D, and B12, as well as calcium—if you make your own oat milk by soaking and straining oats, you won’t get any of the vitamins or minerals. Fitzgerald notes that while fortified products aren’t necessarily bad for you, he prefers options with naturally occurring nutrients. Oat milk is also a bit pricier than soy or almond milk, at $5 per half-gallon, and it can be harder to find at budget grocery stores, though it is now available at Target.
Coconut milk used to come exclusively in a can, and you’d sooner find it in curry than a latte. But now more processed, drinkable forms of coconut milk are sold in cartons by the gallon, with a texture similar to almond milk. Both varieties are higher in fat and potassium and lower in protein than other milks, explains Nedescu. The caloric difference between a cup of canned coconut milk versus a cup of So Delicious coconut milk is noteworthy: a cup of canned milk has 445 calories with 48 grams of fat, while So Delicious has a mere 45 calories and 4.5 grams of fat. Both offer a full daily dose of vitamin B.
Most canned coconut milk costs around $2 for a 14-ounce can. Look for brands that only include coconut milk, no fillers. A half-gallon container from a brand like So Delicious costs $4.
Like almond milk, unsweetened versions of cashew milk are low on macronutrients. So if you’re mainly trying to reduce overall daily caloric intake, swapping whole milk for a nut milk might be a place to start, but for an athlete looking to fuel performance, cashew milk comes up short. Compared to almond milk, cashew milk is slightly creamier, but a single-cup serving is a mere 25 calories, primarily from fat.
Like almond milk, it’s possible to make your own at home by soaking and straining cashews. It’ll save you some cash: a half-gallon of cashew milk will run around $3.50. Most major grocery stores, including Walmart and Target, stock at least one brand.
Pea milk is derived from pea protein and offers a similar amount of protein and fat as regular whole milk (eight and five grams, respectively) but no carbohydrates. It’s also high in calcium—containing almost twice the amount found in cow’s milk—as well as potassium. Because of its high protein content, it’s great postworkout, especially blended in a smoothie with some fruit for added carbs.
Most brands making pea milk boost it with additives like sunflower and algal oils, which offer a smooth texture and additional nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. It typically costs around $6.50 for a half-gallon, making it one of the more expensive options.
The Bottom Line
“I don’t think there’s a good, solid replacement for milk, if you’re looking at it from a nutrient standpoint,” Nedescu says. “When you look at a plant-based milk, one falls short on protein, one falls short on fat, one falls short on calcium. There will be trade-offs, so I always recommend mixing up the types of milk you’re using—it’s good to have a little of everything.”
Fitzgerald points out that they offer vastly different flavor profiles and cooking adaptations as well. “It honestly comes down to which one you prefer as far as taste goes, or what’s the point of drinking it at all?” he says.