Plant-Based Milk Alternatives: Which Milk is Best for You?
Ten years ago, buying milk was simple. Unless you were lactose intolerant, you drank traditional dairy milk. And if you wanted to drink dairy-free milk, soy was the only option. These days, there are dozens of plant-based milk alternatives to choose from, but it can be difficult to compare the cost and health benefits of each option. Here’s everything you need to know to pick the best type of milk for you and your family.
Factors to Consider When Buying Milk
So, which milk is best for you and your family? It depends! If you’re interested in trying a new type of milk, consider these factors first.
If you have picky kids (or are picky yourself), you may not like the taste of some plant-based milk alternatives. Taste may be reason enough for you to stick with your current favorite, even if you prefer the health benefits of milk alternatives.
Nutritional Benefits & Drawbacks
Every type (and even every brand) of milk has its own unique nutritional value. Many families opt for dairy milk for its calcium content for strong bone growth in their children. Others prefer the more balanced nutrients found in non-dairy milks. You’ll need to consider overall nutrition and your personal health goals to figure out the best milk for you and your family.
Dairy milk has been around for centuries, and also requires relatively little processing. For these reasons, it’s also often the cheapest option. Especially for families with children who drink milk daily, dairy milk can be the most affordable choice.
As soy and nut-based milks have grown in popularity, their prices have slowly but steadily dropped. But, there may still be a significant difference in price between dairy and non-dairy milk.
At the end of the day, many people are simply looking for a milk that works with their allergies, intolerances, and other dietary needs. Those with nut allergies will never be interested in almond milk, just as vegans will never be interested in dairy milk. All types of milk offer unique nutritional and dietary benefits, so it’s important to consider your dietary restrictions, as well as your health goals, to find the best milk option.
Types of Milk
While there are upwards of 20 different types of milk available at grocery stores across the country, most fall into one of five categories.
Dairy milk is a staple for a reason. It is relatively affordable, readily available in every grocery store, and packs vitamins and nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein.
In the dairy case of most stores, you’ll find a variety of options, including full fat (3%), 2%, 1%, and skim (0%). You’ll also likely see lactose-free options (with and without extra calcium) and organic options.
Traditional dairy milk is a great option for its cost, availability, and wealth of options. And many stores source their milk from nearby vendors, so choosing dairy milk is a great way to support local farmers.
The first soy milk factory opened in 1910, but soy milk didn’t become popular until the 1980s. More and more people were finding their digestive issues were related to lactose, the sugar found in dairy products like milk.
Like dairy milk, soy milk is high in protein (around 7-12 grams per 8 ounce glass). However, it is also lower in carbohydrates and calories. Even vanilla and chocolate options often contain less sugar per glass than traditional dairy milk does.
If you prefer plant-based milk alternatives, soy milk is widely considered the most nutritionally-balanced option. It is also widely available at most grocery stores, comes in several flavors, and tastes relatively close to the dairy milk most people are used to.
Nut-based milks started growing in popularity in the early 2000s as health concerns grew about the effects of soy. While almond milk is the most popular option, you may see cashew milk, macadamia nut milk, or even pistachio milk in your local grocery store.
Nut-based milks have far fewer calories and carbohydrates than traditional or soy milk because they are mostly made of water. For some, choosing a nut-based milk means missing out on valuable nutrition they’d get with traditional dairy milk. For others, it’s a great low-calorie and low-carb product for weight loss to include in smoothies, baked goods, and even savory dishes like mac and cheese.
If you’re looking for low-calorie plant-based milk alternatives, almond milk and other nut-based milks can be great options.
While they’re less common, there are also a number of grain-based milks available. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Rice milk
- Oat milk
- Hemp milk
- Quinoa milk
The nutrition of any grain-based milk depends on its main namesake ingredient. However, most grain-based milks have similar nutrition to almond milk, because they are made the same way, with their main ingredient soaked in water.
Much like nut-based milks, grain-based milks are beloved by those looking to lose weight because they are low in calories. And they can even be enjoyed by those with nut allergies and dairy sensitivities. But, they are often higher in carbohydrates and sugars, so be sure to check the nutrition facts before buying.
Other Types of Milk
There are a few other types of milk that don’t fit neatly into any category. One of the most common is coconut milk, which sounds like it belongs with almond milk, but is actually nut-free. It also has a unique taste that makes it great for cooking dishes like curries.
Pea milk is also relatively new to the market. It’s high in protein with eight grams in every cup of milk, and is relatively low calorie. It also provides significant calcium, vitamins A and D, and iron. If you’re feeling adventurous, pea milk can be a clean, plant-based milk to use in cooking or baking, or to drink on its own.
You may also see plant-based milk alternative “blends” like almond / coconut milk or soy / coconut milk. These blends can be a good middle ground option that gives you the best of both worlds nutrition-wise without having an overpowering taste.