Plant-based milks are a big business, reaching $2.5 billion in sales in 2020. There are more plant-based milks (and mylks and malks) to choose from than ever before. But with so many options, it can be hard to know what the best non-dairy milk choice is for your needs. We’re helping you out by breaking down the nutritional facts behind each type of non-dairy milk.
Comparing Four of the Best Non-Dairy Milks
Soy milk is generally fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12, and is considered by some to be the most ‘nutritionally comparable’ product to cow’s milk of the major plant milks we’re looking at here. Soy milk contains all nine of the essential amino acids and seven grams of protein per cup.
While there was once concern about isoflavones, the estrogen-mimicking compounds linked to breast cancer, the American Cancer Society has determined that moderate soy consumption is perfectly safe. Just make sure to read the labels, as many brands add loads of sugar, which may not be what you want.
The flavor of soy milk isn’t for everyone, particularly when sipped by itself or used in cereal or coffee, so you may need to experiment to find the brand you prefer and stick with it. Soy milk can almost always be used as a substitute for dairy in baking, but the flavor can detract from savory sauces. Plus, it’ll curdle if cooked too vigorously.
Soy is one of the top nine food allergens, so be aware of how your body handles soy of any kind.
A nutritional lightweight in the plant-based milk line up, almond milk is mostly water, with just 2 to 14 percent of any given carton made up of ground almonds. With just one gram of protein and 0.5 grams of fiber per serving, you’re better off eating whole almonds if you’re looking for those nutrients.
That said, almond milk has a sweet, nutty flavor, and it’s sufficiently creamy to use in baking, smoothies, or coffee when you want a mild milk substitute. Some brands add carrageenan or lecithin to thicken and stabilize, which can become gloppy when cooked in custards and may cause stomach discomfort for some who are sensitive to the additives.
There’s a big difference between the various almond milk varieties you’ll find at your local grocery store. Some have no additives at all, others have a whole lot. Make sure you read your labels carefully to choose a product that’s as clean as can be.
Like soy, tree nuts can be a common food allergy.
Oat milk has been a huge hit in recent years, due in part to its rich, creamy texture. Coffee lovers were the first to jump on the oat milk trend as coffee shops began carrying it as a plant-based option for cappuccinos and lattes. That success with baristas led to a huge tidal wave of growth in recent years, with new oat milk brands seeming to appear every week.
Naturally sweet, with a mild, milky flavor, some brands fortify their blends with added vitamins and minerals. In addition to frothy coffee drinks, oat milk also stands up well in baked goods. Since it can be heated, adding it to roux to make a white sauce or stirring it into a blended soup isn’t a problem, though for the creamiest results, use higher fat (not low-fat) oat milk.
Some brands do include oils and gums to maintain consistency, so be sure to read the labels and opt for products with the shortest ingredient lists. If you’re gluten-free, look for oat milks that are explicitly designated “gluten-free.”
Made from milled rice, rice milk has a naturally sweet flavor and thin texture. It’s the least likely non-dairy milk to cause allergic reactions, so if you have nut, soy, or dairy allergies, fortified rice milk is a good choice.
Because this variety has a very mild, sweet flavor, it can be used in smoothies and some baked goods. However, it tends to curdle in hot tea or coffee, and the thin texture may not work for every recipe. It’s relatively low in calories and saturated fat, but with 27 grams of carbohydrates and very little protein, it can result in blood sugar spikes (it has a relatively high glycemic index of 79 to 92). Make sure to choose a brand that’s been enriched to add nutritional benefits with limited added sugar.