If you’ve ever walked down the milk sections of a supermarket, or visited your favorite local coffee shops lately, you’ve likely seen a wide selection of cow’s milk alternatives: soy, rice, coconut, almond, hemp, oat, cashew, macadamia, and quinoa milks…
Which is the healthiest milk alternative? Are they all nutritionally equivalent? Here’s what you need to know to make the right choice.Check out the 5 most common types of milk alternatives:
1. Rice Milk
This grain milk is made by mixing milled rice with water. Because rice is rich in carbohydrates, rice milk is higher in both sugar (13g per cup) and carbohydrate (22g) content than cow’s milk, which also makes it naturally sweeter. Rice milk is a poor source of protein (< 1g) and relatively low in fat (2.3g, mostly monounsaturated). It provides 70 calories per cup. Like oat milk, rice milk can be a good choice for individuals who are allergic to soy, nuts, and gluten. In fact, rice milk is the least likely of all milk products to cause an allergic reaction.
2. Almond Milk
Almond milk is probably one of the most popular options of the bunch.It is made from ground almonds and filtered water. While whole almonds may be a good source of protein, almond milk is not – one cup only provides 1 gram of protein. Unsweetened almond milk is lower in calories (40 calories per cup), carbohydrates (1g), and fat (3g) than cow’s milk. Almond milk is a good source of vitamins A and E, and commercial versions are often fortified with other vitamins and minerals.For those who do not have a nut allergy, almond milk can be a healthy choice. It should not, however, be considered a nutritional equivalent to milk. It is significantly lower in protein, calories, and carbs – other foods should be included in the meal/diet to make up for this!
3. Oat Milk
Because of its creamy consistency, foaming ability, and naturally sweet flavor, oat milk has become increasingly popular in coffee shops over the last couple of years. Made from rolled oats, oat milk can be a great alternative to other milks if you’re allergic to soy or nuts. If you have celiac disease, be sure to choose oat milks made from certified gluten-free oats.
From a nutrition standpoint, unsweetened oat milk is generally higher in calories (120 calories per cup) and carbohydrates (16g) than other plant-based milks. One cup provides 3g of protein (lower than cow and soy milk), 5g of fat, and notably 2g of dietary fiber.
4. Soy Milk
Soy milk is a fantastic, nutritionally dense, dairy-free option. It is the only one that is comparable in protein content to cow’s milk. Soy milk is made from filtered water and soybeans, a type of legume that offers a high-quality plant-based protein.
From a nutrition point of view, a one-cup serving of unsweetened soy milk provides an average of 95 calories, 5g of carbohydrates, 8g of protein, and 4.5g of fat. The fat content of soy milk is primarily polyunsaturated, which is known to be heart-healthy. Many commercial soy milks are also fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and vitamin D.
5. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is made by extracting the liquid from grated white coconut meat, which is rich in saturated fats. Despite its high saturated fat content, research has found that coconut (due to its high level of medium-chain triglycerides) may actually help to increase HDL and reduce LDL levels, which can have positive effects on blood cholesterol.
Coconut milk has a very different nutrition profile to the other milk alternatives, providing 45 calories per cup, very little protein (<1 g), very little carbs (<1 g), and higher content of fat (4-5 g). While it’s rich in flavor and a healthy choice, it also is not a nutritional equivalent to cow or soy milk.
To sum it all up, milk alternatives have different tastes, textures, and nutritional benefits that make them uniquely fitted for different purposes. If you are allergic to cow’s milk or simply you don’t like its taste, I recommend you choose organic, non-GMO, and unsweetened plant-based milks whenever possible and take the above nutrition analysis into consideration.
- Licensed Clinical Dietician, B.Sc., M.Sc. in Nutrition, AUB- Lebanon