The milk section is doing a lot lately. While cow’s milk appears to be here to stay, the udder stuff is sharing the shelf with a whole lot of other stuff these days. Think of a nut, grain, seed, legume—someone, somewhere, has figured out how to make nondairy milk out of it.
“There’s a lot more awareness of different allergies and intolerances and lifestyles these days,” Marisa Moore, R.D.N., tells SELF. “And the nondairy market has really stepped up to meet those needs.”
Not to mention “people just like alternatives and choices,” Moore says—nondairy devotees and dairy lovers alike. “You don’t have to be vegan or allergic to dairy to explore plant-based milks,” as Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.N., author of Body Kindness, tells SELF.
While half the fun of plant-based milks is the sheer variety available, the number of options can also feel a little…overwhelming. “I [hear from] people that making a decision about which one to buy can sometimes be confusing,” Moore says.
If you’ve ever experienced a minor episode of decision paralysis in the dairy/nondairy aisle, we get it, and we’re here for you.
Here’s what to keep in mind when choosing a nondairy milk.
Now, because these milks have different nutritional profiles, it might seem like that’s the right place to start when trying to decide what to go for. But the factor that’s going to really narrow down the (many) options for you is your personal preference.
The taste of plant-based milk really runs the gamut in terms of flavor (from neutral to distinctive) and texture (from creamy to watery). Many brands offer both plain and vanilla-flavored version of their drink, as well as sweetened and unsweetened. There’s also a lot of variety just from brand to brand, Moore points out, depending on the ingredients list. While some brands just use the plant matter and water, many will add various fats (like canola oil) to enhance the mouthfeel, as well as thickening, emulsifying, and binding agents (like xanthan gum, carrageenan, or sunflower lecithin) to smoothen the texture and keep the mixture from separating.
So we recommend not focusing just on nutritional profile—or at least not making it the first thing you look at. Because if you don’t like how a product tastes, who cares what the nutrition panel says? “It’s really about what it is that you enjoy,” Scritchfield says.
Then there’s what you’re gonna do with the stuff (other than drink it by the glass). “Whenever you’re choosing a nondairy milk, you have to ask yourself how you are planning to use it for cooking or baking,” Dalina Soto, R.D., L.D.N., founder and bilingual dietitian at Nutritiously Yours, tells SELF. For some everyday purposes like pouring over cereal, a lot of these are pretty interchangeable. But keep in mind that not all plant milks are as all-purpose as dairy milk, and some are much better suited for, say, whipping up a latte or making a savory soup base than others. (For instance, coconut milk might make for a bizarre cream of broccoli soup, while rice milk is pretty watery for a coffee creamer.)
Okay, now we can talk about the nutrition part. The first thing to remember here is that the nutrients found in plant milk are just waaaay different than those found in cow’s milk. “Nutritionally, it’s very difficult to find a dairy alternative that stacks up to milk,” Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D., of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF.
With the rare exception of soy milk (which we’ll talk more about shortly), you just don’t get the same protein punch from plant-based milk. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, and tons of people get all the protein they need and then some without ever consuming dairy. But if dairy milk has been a primary source of protein in your diet, it’s something to consider.
That said, plant-based milks do have other goods to offer—and they’re as unique from one another, nutritionally speaking, as the plants they come from. “Each one is going to have its own nutrition benefits and a variety of different vitamins and minerals,” Scritchfield says. You also see a ton of diversity when it comes to fat, carb, and protein content. (And just like with flavor, you also see some differences from brand to brand, depending on whether they add, say, some vegetable oil that obviously ups the fat content.) All this variety means that you can probably find something to suit whatever it is you’re seeking. “Since we all have unique nutrition needs and concerns, [what to look for] can vary from person to person,” Harbstreet says.
Generally speaking, though, R.D.s recommend selecting fortified versions of these milks when you can. The logic here is that the extra vitamins and minerals could be beneficial for some people—and that for everyone else, it can’t hurt. Harbstreet recommends in particular looking for products higher in calcium (which cow’s milk is naturally rich in), vitamin D (typically also added to cow’s milk), and vitamin B12 (which is only found in animal products, including cow’s milk). Most people aren’t getting enough calcium, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH); some don’t get enough vitamin D; and while most people who eat animal products do get enough vitamin B12, vegans and vegetarians may not, per the NIH. There are certainly plenty of other food sources of these nutrients in a diverse diet, but “a fortified or enriched dairy alternative could potentially help fill a nutrient gap,” Harbstreet says. Even if you’re not at risk for a deficiency, you might as well get a nice nutritive boost (at no added cost) from something you’re going to be drinking anyway, right?
Now, TBH, the best way to really find your fave nondairy milk is to experiment with it for yourself. (Soto recommends hitting up a local natural-foods store for samples if you don’t want to shell out before trying them all.) The descriptions we’re offering here are based on the opinions of well-versed R.D.s and, well, me: a self-proclaimed nondairy-milk connoisseur. (And the nutrition facts we’re offering are based on one brand among many.) But the truth is that everyone has a different palate and different nutritional needs. So, to help you navigate the world of moo-less milk, we put together a (nonexhaustive) list of the most popular ones. Here’s what to know about the nondairy mainstays.
Almond milk might be the most popular entry point into the world of nondairy milks. “It seems to be the most popular,” Scritchfield says. “It’s everywhere!”
That might be thanks in part to its inoffensiveness, taste and texturewise. Thin but not watery and with a mild and neutral flavor, almond milk is pretty versatile, Moore says. “It works well as a good background ingredient in things like smoothies, lattes, lighter sauces,” Moore says. Use it like you might use skim milk or water—“anywhere you need some moisture but not too much thickness or strong flavor,” as Scritchfield puts it. (Just be sure to use an unflavored, unsweetened version for anything savory.) It’s also light enough to chug by the glass, if that’s your thing.
Almond milk doesn’t stand out all that much nutritionally speaking, either. Both Soto and Scritchfield say they’ve had a lot of clients opt for almond milk because of its low calorie count. “But being low in calories doesn’t necessarily signal that it’s the healthiest choice for you, because low-calorie can often translate to low-nutrient,” Scritchfield points out. It offers nowhere near as much protein, fiber, or even fat as almonds or almond butter. As long you’re not counting on almond milk for satiety, it’s a perfectly good option. It just may not be as satisfying as a higher-protein or fat milk.
By the way: There are other varieties of nut milk that are pretty comparable to almond milk. For instance, grocery stores are increasingly selling cashew milk, which is quite similar to almond milk in terms of its neutral flavor and nutritional value. “But I prefer cashew milk because I think it’s ever so slightly creamier,” Moore says. Or try pecan milk, for instance, for a tad more flavor.
If you are trying to replace the nutritional value of milk in your diet, then reach for the soy stuff. “Soy milk is the best choice for someone who’s trying to replace the protein they used to get from regular milk,” Moore says. Most brands are right on par (7 grams vs. 8 grams of protein a cup) with cow’s milk, while some actually beat out dairy in the protein department. It’s also a good option for anyone who is generally looking to incorporate more sources of plant protein into their diet.
Soy milk has a nice, silky smooth texture. But plain, unsweetened soy milk has a taste that many people find, shall we say, less than palatable on its own. “It does have a distinct flavor,” Moore says. “Some people love it, but it certainly stands out.”
That’s why, when it comes to cooking with plain soy milk, it’s often best suited for dishes with other strong flavor elements—lots of garlic or spice—that will overpower the soy. Scritchfield likes pureeing it with frozen corn to make a chowder, and then folding in whatever herbs and veggies she has on hand to make a plant protein-packed soup.
And if you happen to not be a fan of the signature soy flavor, it totally becomes chuggable with the addition of a little sugar and/or vanilla, which you’ll find in a lot of varieties on the market.
There are actually two very different kinds of coconut milk. The type that comes in shelf-stable or refrigerated cardboard cartons has been watered down to be pretty thin and low-fat, Moore says. You might use it like you would almond milk (anywhere you don’t mind a coconut flavor, that is). It’s also perfect for people who want something like almond like but are allergic to tree nuts, Soto says.
Canned coconut milk, on the other hand, is a great option if you’re pining for the richness and creaminess of whole milk, Soto says. No, the flavor is nothing like dairy. But “that high-fat content gives you both that heavy mouthfeel and sense of satiety,” Scritchfield explains.
While it’s too rich for chugging, that fattiness and subtle sweetness make it ideal for desserts and baked goods that call for half-and-half or whole milk, Sotto says (like chocolate mousse or banana pancakes), where the coconut essence can add a decadent tropical flair to the conventional flavor profile. (Moore also likes using either type of coconut milk to make pineapple ice pops.) But canned coconut milk can’t be used interchangeably with dairy in most savory dishes because of its strong flavor. (Although it is a key ingredient in Thai curries, for instance.)
Finally, if you’re looking for a fantastic dairy-free whipped cream, you can’t beat canned coconut milk. “The process of making whipped cream is basically the aeration of fat,” Scritchfield explains. If you leave a can of coconut milk in the fridge overnight, “the solid fad component will rise to the top and separate,” Scritchfield says, leaving you with the non-dairy equivalent of heavy whipping cream. (You can also find cans of pure coconut cream at some grocery stores.)