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A Guide to Plant-Based Milk

 

Written by: Ana Newman, MS, Dietetic Intern

 

If you’ve been to the dairy aisle of the grocery store in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed an increase in the variety of plant-based milks. It seems like everyone has an opinion on which type of milk you should be drinking and it’s hard to know what to believe. Even the FDA has become involved in the discussion and is currently trying to decide if these beverages can continue to use the label “milk”.

Plant-based milk such as almond, cashew, oat, coconut, and many others, are becoming increasingly popular and now account for 13% of all milk sales.1 With so many choices, how do you know which one is best for you or your family?

I’ve broken down the nutrition facts so you can see how the different types compare to each other and cow’s milk, and I’ll discuss some of the differences to help you make the best choice!

Why might someone choose plant-based milk over cow’s milk?

  • Milk allergy
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Vegan or dietary preference
  • Taste preference
  • An elimination diet or recommendation to avoid dairy by a healthcare provider

General tips for choosing a plant-based milk

  • Opt for unsweetened options to limit added sugars.
  • Plant-based milks are not naturally high sources of calcium or vitamin D; however, most are fortified with these nutrients. Choosing one that has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D can help meet needs for these micronutrients. Check the nutrition facts label and aim for 30% of the daily value for calcium and 25% of the daily value for vitamin D.
  • Consider your overall diet and variety of protein from other sources. You may benefit from plant-based milk with added protein. If you are unsure, working with a dietitian can help determine appropriate protein intake.
  • What do you intend to use it for? Each type has different properties, and some may work better than others in recipes or for daily use. For example, some may appear lumpy when added to coffee and other may alter the flavor of recipes.
  • One of the biggest factors is taste preference. Experiment with different flavors to find the one you like best.

 

Now that you know what to look for when choosing plant-based milk, let’s compare how 1 cup of different (unsweetened) types compare to 1 cup of skim cow’s milk. It is important to note that types of plant-based milk vary widely in nutrient composition between varieties and brands of the same variety. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to glance at the nutrition facts label when trying a new product to know exactly what you’re getting.

Type of milk

Calories

Protein (grams)

Saturated fat (grams)

Carbohydrate (grams)

Skim cow’s milk

90

8

0

12

Soy milk

80

7

0.5

3

Almond milk

30-40

1

0

1

Cashew milk

25

< 1

0

1

Coconut milk (in a carton, not a can)

40

0

3

1

Oat milk

90 – 120

2-3

0 – 0.5

14-16

Flax milk

25- 60(added protein option)

0 – 8(added protein option)

0

1

Rice milk

70

0

0

11

Pea protein milk

70

8

0.5

0

 

Some of the main differences to take note of:

  • In general, plant-based milks are lower in calories than skim cow’s milk (except for oat milk, which is higher in calories).
  • Most options are lower in protein than cow’s milk (except the protein milks, which are comparable).
  • Most options are very low in carbohydrates (with the exception of oat milk and rice milk).
  • Saturated fat content is very low at 0-0.5g per cup (except for coconut milk, which comes in at 3g per cup).

Takeaway:

Plant-based milks have come a long way in recent years and can be a healthy and nutritious alternative to cow’s milk. With so many options it’s easier than ever to find one that you enjoy and meets your needs. It comes down to taste preference, nutrition goals, and budget when determining which variety you like best.

 

References

  1. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2018/07/30/US-retail-sales-of-plant-based-milk-up-9-plant-based-meat-up-24-YoY

 

Ana is currently completing her dietetic internship through Meredith College. She is passionate about helping individuals approach food in a way that nurtures their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. In her free time, you can find her teaching or taking group fitness classes or trying the newest restaurant.

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