If the “Got Milk?” campaign ran today, many people would answer that question with a resounding no. But while the white mustache look may have gone out of style, plant-based milks are more popular than ever.
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And whatever the reason you’ve decided to ditch dairy—from forgoing FODMAPs to veganism—you may need help navigating the now diverse options for milk that isn’t milk.
First, the easy, big picture advice: we tend to reach for nut milks or coconut milk because of the naturally occurring nutrients in the base ingredients—like the minerals in almonds and healthy fats in coconut.
But because these are not just whole foods straight from a cow, you have to be more vigilant about added ingredients like sugar and preservatives. Look for ingredient lists that primarily feature real food and only reach for the “unsweetened” versions.
Better yet: Making your own nut milk at home is super simple and fast (more on that soon!). Here are fast facts about each alt-milk to consult when you’re deciding which may be right for you.
Plant-Based Milks, Compared
Pros: The main ingredients in almond milk are almonds and water, both of which your body loves. Almonds contain healthy fats and important minerals like calcium and iron. Made at home, it’s generally a clean, healthy, deliciously nutty addition to any diet, and it’s the easiest to find at the grocery store.
Cons: Almond milk contains very little protein compared to other options. There are also very few almonds in that packaged carton, so most of the vitamins and minerals you see on the label are added via fortification (which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not as good as getting them from whole foods). Finally, it’s often made with carrageenan, an additive that can be hard to digest and may cause inflammatory responses in some people (although you can find brands without it if you look).
Pros: Cashew milk is similar to almond in many ways, since cashews contain similar healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals (including stress-fighting zinc!). It has a similar yummy, nutty flavor with a slightly creamier texture. Major win: It’s the easiest to make at home, since it doesn’t even need to be strained post-blending.
Cons: Again, like almond, it’s low in protein, so don’t consider it a cow’s milk replacement.
Pros: You’ve probably heard about the healthy fats in coconut oil, and coconut milk is filled with them, too. It’s also rich in important B vitamins and minerals like iron and calcium. It’s the creamiest of the alt-milks, so lots of people love it in coffee (and for rocking a classic milk ‘stache).
Cons: If you’re buying the canned kind, all of that good fat means it’s very calorie-dense, so considering portion size is important. (No chugging, k?) But the kind sold in cardboard cartons alongside nut milks is more watered down, so the calories aren’t as big of a concern.
Pros: Soy milk is a winner when it comes to protein, and many people prefer the slightly thicker texture to nut milks.
Cons: Soy is a complicated ingredient and many experts disagree on its health benefits and/or risks. The main thing to remember is that almost all of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified in order to be doused in Round-up, a pesticide linked to many nasty health issues. So, if love the taste and want the protein, be sure to go organic on this one to avoid that issue.
Pros: Hemp has much more protein than the nut milks (but still slightly less than soy) and contains healthy omega-3s.
Cons: Like almond, the packaged version often contains carrageenan, and most of the vitamins and minerals on the label are added via fortification. The flavor is also a little stronger than other milks and some may not love the grassy taste.
Pros: Rice milk is a little old school and doesn’t really compare to other alternative milks in the nutrition department, but it has one main benefit: it’s the least allergenic, so for those with allergies looking for non-dairy options, it could be a good pick.
Cons: It’s low in protein, low in beneficial vitamins and minerals, and high in carbs. It’s also generally watery and bland. Overall, it just really doesn’t have much going for it.