There could be a number of reasons you're steering clear of dairy these days, from the potential effects it has on your skin to the hormonal imbalances some studies suggest it can cause. Or it's possible you've committed to cutting out animal products for sustainability or ethical reasons. Then, of course, others might simply have an allergy to the stuff. In an case, dairy alternatives are more popular — and arguably better — than ever, which begs the question: Which is right for you? Nutritionists have considered the various milk type comparisons, and the results might just surprise you.
Whether going totally vegan or just trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet, subbing out your traditional dairy milk is a great place to start, especially with the wide array of nut, seed, and other types of "milk" on the market. That said, the sheer volume of what's available can make it all the more confusing. Not only that, but according to nutrition experts, you may need to consider the loss of certain vitamins and minerals that can come from reducing your dairy intake. "It’s important for anyone going dairy-free to be aware of the nutrients that they were getting from dairy and to consume them in other foods," says Dr. Josh Axe, author, certified doctor of natural medicine and clinical nutritionist. "The nutrients most at risk if dairy products are excluded are calcium, potassium, and magnesium."
And besides what you can lose in nutritional content from switching to certain milks (given the rest of your diet doesn't change), there's also the additional ingredients they may have to consider — namely sugar. "All boxed or canned non-dairy milks may have added ingredients like preservatives, emulsifiers, or stabilizers like guar gum," explains Chicago-based intuitive eating specialist Krista King. Her rule of thumb? "Opt for those with minimal ingredients (ideally the main nut or seed or oat plus water). Also, these milks often have added sugar unless they are labels unsweetened. I recommend opting for unsweetened options."
Want to see how your go-to milk alternative stacks up, or how to pick one that suits your dietary needs the best? Read ahead to see what Axe, King, and nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet Lisa Richards have to say about some of the most popular options available.
Arguably the hottest of non-dairy milks on the market at the moment, oat milk can be a great option for vegans who may not be getting enough vitamin B12 in their diets, according to Richards. "Oat milk provides 50 percent daily value of this essential nutrient," she explains. "Commercially purchased oat milk is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, making it beneficial for bone health." Additionally, oats are naturally high in fiber which, which the nutritionist says can be very beneficial to your heart health.
On the flip side, Richards says that oat milk could pose a threat to gluten-intolerant folks. "While oats are naturally gluten-free some are processed in facilities that also process and manufacture gluten containing products," she offers. "This can lead to cross-contamination of gluten. You'll want to look for oat milk that states it is gluten free or does not state that it may contain wheat, etc."
Assuming you're not allergic to the nut, almonds can be a kind of superfood, due to the fact that they're full of healthy, unsaturated fat. Plus they offer fiber, antioxidants, plant protein, and even probiotic components, says Dr. Axe. And if you plan on stocking up on this type of milk, Richards offers a word of advice: Opt for unsweetened varieties, which won't spike your blood sugar.
According to Richards, coconut milk contains immunity-boosting lauric acid and Dr. Axe adds that it's full of healthy fats, but there are a few things to look out for if you're using this tree nut milk as your go-to. For one thing, it contains fermentable carbohydrates, which can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort and issues. It's also more lacking in protein and calcium than some other milk alternatives.
That said, Dr. Axe explains that you can supplement with calcium-rich foods like kale, broccoli, watercress, and bok choy if you want to keep reaching for the coconut milk. And if you've been buying the boxed kind, King recommends swapping it out for canned, full-vat varieties for more nutritional value.
Hemp milk's pros include naturally occurring calcium (even more so dairy, says Richards). It's also got essential fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6, which the nutritionist explains are beneficial for overall health. As for the cons? "It contains a very small amount of protein per serving at just 1.25 grams, compared to 8 grams in dairy milk,” she notes.
When it comes to protein, soy is one of the better options for non-dairy milk types, says King. "It is also has a very similar amount of carbohydrates and fat, [making this] the most similar to regular milk," she says. That said, soy milks can often include added ingredients (like sweeteners) as well as genetically modified soybeans. For your best bet, look for types that have minimal additives and utilize organic, non-GMO soybeans.