If you are recently vegan or dairy free, you may be having a difficult time deciding what plant-based milk is right for you. This article goes over what to look for in a plant-based milk, how they compare to cow’s milk as well as a ranking of plant-based milks based on taste, texture, cost and more.
What to look for in a plant-based milk
The number one thing to look for in a plant-based milk is fortification with calcium. Once upon a time, almost all plant-based milks had calcium added, but as the clean food, less ingredients movement progressed, more companies began putting out unfortified products.
Is almond milk with no fortification bad? No. But, when removing dairy from your diet, you are almost removing your diet’s main source of calcium. While some foods contain calcium naturally (salmon with bones, tofu, etc), it’s not much and will likely not meet your daily needs. This is why it’s best to choose a plant-based milk that contains added calcium.
Another thing to look for is protein. One cup of cow’s milk contains about 8 grams of protein. Plant-based milks tend to have much less than this, with the exception of soy milk. So, if protein is a concern of yours, it may be best to choose soy milk or another high protein plant-based milk. Some companies offer products with added protein to mimic the nutrient of cow’s milk.
Finally, added sugar is something to consider when purchasing a plant-based milk. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 10% of your calories to come from added sugars. If you consume about 2000 calories per day, this is about 50 grams of added sugar.
If you are regularly consuming more than this amount daily, it may be best to consider choosing a plant-based milk that contains little to no added sugar. This is an easy way to ensure your added sugar intake doesn’t get too high.
Is plant-based milk healthier than cow’s milk?
I hate labeling foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” just because everyone has a vastly different idea of what this means and what really matters is your overall diet, not individual foods. But something we can talk about is nutrient density, which basically refers to how much nutrients a food provides.
Let’s start off with cow’s milk. One cup of 2% milk contains about 120 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fat and 8 grams of protein. It’s an excellent source of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium and phosphorus. It’s a good source of vitamin B5, vitamin A, potassium, selenium and zinc.
Now as for plant-based milk, it really depends on the type of milk and the brand. Here are some examples of popular plant-based milks and how they compare. Just a note: I did only include the unsweetened, fortified versions of these milks and I rounded to even numbers for simplicity’s sake. All the nutrients provided are based on a one cup serving and I only listed the micronutrients that were above 10% of your daily value.
|Type of Milk
|Vitamins: B2, B12, A, D, K
Minerals: calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium
|Vitamins: B1, B2, A, D
Minerals: calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, zinc
|Vitamins: D, E
|Vitamins: B2, B12, D, E
Minerals: calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus
|Vitamins: B12, folate, A, D
Minerals: calcium, magnesium, manganese, selenium
The 5 Best Plant-Based Milks
Overall Best: Soy Milk
Soy milk is a clear winner as the best overall plant-based milk. While there is some controversy around soy, there is plenty of evidence to suggest soy is a health promoting food for both men and women.
One cup of soy milk is around 70 calories with 8 grams of protein. It’s a good source of vitamin B2, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and selenium. Overall, it’s pretty much a nutrient powerhouse.
Soy milk has a creamy texture and a light bean-y flavor. This is because it’s made using soybeans. It has a slightly yellowish color and can be purchased in half gallon or in shelf stable quarts. It typically lasts 7-10 days in the refrigerator once opened.
One half gallon of soy milk costs about $2.69 if you get the store brand. This cost may vary depending on what store you shop at and where you are located geographically. One thing I love about soy milk is that it is WIC eligible, meaning if you are participating you can purchase soy milk with your benefits each month.
Best Low Calorie: Almond Milk
After soy milk, almond milk is one of the earliest forms of plant-based milk to make it to the shelf. It’s what I like to call a started plant-based milk, since it’s typically what people grab when first trying out a milk alternative.
One cup of almond milk contains about 40 calories and 1 gram of protein. It’s a good source of vitamin D, vitamin E and calcium. Since it is so low in calories, it doesn’t contain many micronutrients. The main source of these nutrients are from fortification, not from the almonds themselves.
Almond milk is slightly creamy, but mostly watery in texture. It does have a bit of a nutty flavor since it’s made with almonds, but it’s not over-powering. This should go without saying, but if you are allergic to almonds or tree nuts, please don’t choose this milk alternative!
One half gallon of almond milk costs about $2.50 if you get the store brand. This cost may vary depending on what store you shop at and where you are located geographically. It’s one of the cheapest plant-based milk alternatives, so if you are on a budget this is a great choice.
Best Tasting: Oat Milk
Oat milk is one of the most popular plant-based milks on the market today. And you can totally understand why considering how creamy and tasty the milk alternative is. While I personally drink dairy milk, oat milk is usually what I go for when I’m looking for a plant-based milk.
One cup of oat milk contains about 130 calories and 5 grams of protein. It’s a good source of vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, zinc. Other than soy milk, it’s one of the most nutrient dense plant-based milks available.
Oat milk has a creamy, but grainy texture. Since oats are very fibrous, some of this fiber transfers over to the milk (about 4 grams per cup) causing a bit of a grain-like feeling in your mouth. It’s sweet and has a pleasant taste. It’s unique because instead of being sourced from nuts, seeds or beans, it comes from a grain.
One half gallon of oat milk is about $3.69 if you get the store brand. This cost may vary depending on what store you shop at and where you are located geographically. Unfortunately, it’s one of the more expensive plant-based milk alternatives on the market. But, it’s probably worth the extra dollar if you can afford it.
Best Nut-Free: Hemp Milk
Hemp milk may have a lot of catching up to do (it’s one of the newer plant-based milks), but it still holds a place in my heart. Since it’s made from hemp seeds, it can be a great allergen friendly option for those with nut or soy allergies.
One cup of hemp milk contains about 70 calories and 2 grams of protein. It’s a good source of vitamin B2, vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus. While it’s higher in fat compared to the other milks, it contains polyunsaturated fats which have been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease when compared to saturated fat.
Hemp milk has an earthy, nutty flavor despite being nut free. It’s creamy and a bit sweet. And just to clarify, no, it does not make you high. Despite coming from the same plant as marijuana it doesn’t contain any THC (the component that brings on a euphoric feeling).
Since hemp milk is rather new, I was unable to find a store brand version. The cheapest option I could find was a quart for $3.59. This is definitely the most expensive plant-based milk on this list, but may be worth it for the heart healthy fats and lack of nuts or soy.
Best for Cooking: Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has long been loved and used in cooking in various Asian countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. While it’s great in cooking, you can also consume it in your morning coffee, in cereal or by itself.
One cup of coconut milk contains about 70 calories and 1 gram of protein. It’s a good source of vitamin B12, folate, vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, manganese and selenium. It’s a unique plant-based milk alternative since it contains a good amount of folate, which is especially important for pregnant women.
Coconut milk is very creamy and to say it plainly, tastes like coconuts. It’s great in a creamy soup or curry and can be made into a sweet dish or a savory dish. It’s probably the sweetest plant-based milk on this list, which makes it delicious on its own.
One half gallon of coconut milk costs about $2.99 if you get the store brand. This cost may vary depending on what store you shop at and where you are located geographically. You can also purchase it in cans, which can be cheaper depending on the brand you buy.
Can you make plant-based milk at home?
Yes you can. In fact, there are several brands that make machines that make nut milks for you. This is a great way to make almond or cashew milk at home. You can also make it using a blender and a cheese cloth. The options are endless.
Now this being said, if you make plant-based milk at home, you will be missing out on the fortification that plant-based milks in the store have. Particularly with nutrients like calcium and vitamins D.
If you do choose to make plant-based milk at home, make sure you are getting in enough calcium throughout the day from sources like calcium fortified orange juice, yogurt, cheese, canned salmon (bone-in), tofu, fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kale, chia seeds and pinto beans.