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By Michelle Lau
There are now many types of milk alternatives freely available. As a consumer, which one is right for you?
Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or environmentally-conscious consumer, it’s impossible to avoid the different plant-based milks (or “mylks”) popping up near the dairy aisle in supermarkets and health food stores. The growing demand for mylk in the market is riding on the back of a shift in consumption patterns and increased inclination among consumer toward a more sustainable and healthier lifestyle. But now, milk shelves in supermarkets are more crowded than ever, so it can be pretty confusing to know which milk is really right for you.
From soy to almond, peanut to oat, cashew to rice, and more, a plant-based product seems like it would be a healthier option than standard dairy. But is this always the case? Here’s what to look for when choosing the option for you (nutrition information varies between brands):
Cow’s milk is a good dietary source of essential vitamins and minerals. A serving of cow’s milk contains calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and a host of micronutrients that you need in your diet. In addition, it’s hard to beat the quality of cow’s milk proteins – 20% whey and 80% casein – both of which contain all nine essential amino acids. The downside to dairy is that it contains lactose, a sugar that can be difficult for people with lactose intolerance to fully digest.
Nutrition for 1 cup of milk (8 ounces):
Skim: 80 calories; 8 grams of protein; 0 fat
1%: 100 calories; 8 grams of protein; 2 grams of fat
2%: 120 calories; 8 grams of protein; 5 grams of fat
Whole milk: 150 calories, 8 grams of protein; 8 grams of fat
Almond milk is naturally dairy-free, making it suitable for vegans, as well as people with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance. It’s good source of calcium, vitamins A, D, and E, and has far fewer calories than other milks. However, it’s not a good source of protein. Almond milk has a smooth, nutty flavor, which can be used in many recipes for smoothies, soups, and stews. However, like any beverage made from tree nuts, almond milk is not suitable for those with nut allergies.
Nutritionally speaking, almond milk might seem like a good plant-based option, but environmentally speaking, almond production is becoming unsustainable in the United States. It pressures the environment through agricultural land conversion, pesticide use, and the use of managed honey bees.
To reap the most nutrition benefits, choose almond milk that is unsweetened, unflavored, and fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Nutrition info for 1 cup (unsweetened, plain):
30 to 50 calories; up to 1 gram of protein; 2 to 2.5 grams fat.
Many commercially available varieties of almond milk contain 30 to 45% of the recommended daily value of calcium per serving.
Note that sweetened almond milk can be loaded with sugar.
Soy milk has been a popular alternative option for many decades, and also is the most comparable to cow’s milk in terms of its overall nutrition profile. It’s also the highest in protein of all the mylk options, with about 7 to 12 grams per 8-ounce serving.
Apart from being naturally cholesterol-free, soy milk contains isoflavones, phytonutrients which have been shown to have cancer-fighting properties and can reduce inflammation in the body. Recent studies have shown that a moderate amount of soy is healthy, especially for women.
Nutrition info for 1 cup (unsweetened):
80-100 calories, 7-12 grams protein, 1.5-2 grams fat and 20-45% of the recommended daily intake of calcium
Oat milk is naturally sweet and provides more protein than some other types of plant-based milk. It contains about 3 grams of protein in a 1-cup serving, compared with 8 grams in cow’s milk and 7-8 grams in soy milk. It does not contain all nine essential amino acids, which soy and dairy do. However, oat milk retains some of the healthy fiber found in oats, although it’s only about 2 grams per cup (cow’s milk has 1 gram of fiber or less per cup). Oat milk is also a great choice if you are looking to reduce your carbon footprint, as oats are grown in cooler climates, such as the northern U.S. and Canada, and are therefore not associated with deforestation in other countries.
Nutrition info for 1 cup:
130 calories, 4 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat, 35% of the recommended daily value of calcium
Rice milk is relatively inexpensive and made by combining partially milled rice and water. Although it has a sweet flavor, it offers little in the way of nutrition (low in protein!) compared to other types of mylk. Moreover, it produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other mylk.
Nutrition info for 1 cup:
90 to 130 calories, 1 gram protein, 2 to 2.5 grams fat, and 30% of the recommended daily intake of calcium.
Most of the calories in unsweetened coconut milk are from lauric acid, a saturated fat that is touted for its ability to raise HDL (good) cholesterol. This makes its fat “less bad” than other saturated fats. Fat content aside, coconut milk is lacking in protein.
If you’re someone who enjoys a fuller fat, super creamy milk experience, this alternative may be right for you. However, it is not recommended to consume coconut milk like dairy milk – rather, it should be considered more like a substitute for cream.
Nutrition info for 1 cup: 445 calories, 4 grams of protein; 48 grams of fat, and 4% of the recommended daily intake for calcium.
The bottom line:
Dairy products – even full-fat versions – can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, albeit some people may not want to overdo it on high-calorie, high-fat cow’s milk. Consumers should know how popular milk substitutes compare in order to make informed choice for the health of their families and the planet.
People who opt for plant-based milk products should be aware of the missing calories, macronutrients, minerals, and vitamins that are abundant in cow’s milk and be sure to make up for these nutrients in other areas of their diet.
Last but not least, with so many brands and varieties – sweetened, unsweetened, fortified, flavored, and more – in order to get the final word on how one type compares to another, you’ll have to really read the label.
About the Author
Michelle is a Registered Dietitian (MSc.), nutrition educator, media personality, and the founder of NUTRILICIOUS, a B2B nutrition consultancy and communications company that aspires to inspire millions across Asia to eat their way to healthier and happier lives. Michelle and her team passionately motivate all audiences to Eat Whole, Train Smart, Live Full and deliver science-based nutrition information in fun and “digestible” ways. As an avid runner and obsessive home baker, she appreciates and prioritizes balance in all areas of life. “Change the world, One bite at a time.”
Header image by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash.