Coconut, almond, hemp, cashew, soy. The nondairy milk options seem to keep multiplying, and are available more widely now than ever. Soymilk has long been a fixture in many coffee shops; last week Starbucks announced that it will be making coconut milk an option in its U.S. stores, and almond milk has been on the menu at select Dunkin’ Donuts outlets since September.
Of course this is great news if you’re vegan, lactose intolerant, allergic to, or just don’t like the taste of cow’s milk. But with so many alternatives available, loads of people are wondering if they too should be skipping cow’s milk in exchange for milk from a bean, nut, seed, or grain.
So what do you need to know about the various milk options? Here are some of the most common, and how they each stack up:
The Original: Cow’s Milk
One cup of 2% milk has 8 grams of protein—around 18% of what the average teen girl needs per day. Protein is important for maintaining the body’s cells, tissues, and organs, including your muscles, and is a major factor in how satisfied you feel after a meal. It’s also a good source of bone-building calcium as well as blood pressure balancing potassium, and provides around 20% of a teen girl’s needs for vitamin D, which helps your body use all of that calcium (however, it’s worth noting that vitamin D isn’t in milk naturally—it is added).
The First Alternative: Soymilk
Nutrient for nutrient, this is the nondairy milk that comes the closest to cow’s. Soymilk, too, is a good source of protein, with about 6 grams per cup. However this food is not without some controversy. Isoflavones found in soy foods are a class of compounds with some similarities to the hormone estrogen (compounds that play such a role are called phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens). It can mimic the effects of the hormone in some situations, while in others it can actually block it. Studies of humans have found that when people eat soy foods, they seem to have lower rates of various types of cancers. But when researchers isolated the soy protein to see if they could protect against cancer even more, they found that cancer growth increased. So what’s the deal?
The take home message is that the consumption of whole soy foods—things like tofu, tempeh, edamame and soymilk—is what’s considered safe, and even a beneficial addition to your diet. Supplements and more processed foods like powders and bars made from isolated soy protein may be a different story since they provide your body with a much more concentrated dose of those isoflavones that we still don’t know enough about. What we do know: When it comes to food, the more whole ones (think oranges over orange juice; potatoes before potato chips) are almost always your best bet, and soy is no exception.
Like cow’s milk, soymilk typically also has vitamin D added in. It’s a good source of calcium, often more so than cow milk, however it’s worth mentioning that the high level of calcium is thanks to fortification as well. It’s also a good source of potassium (naturally). Bonus: Most soymilks are also fortified with vitamin B12, a nutrient that vegans and others tend to have trouble getting enough of.
One disclaimer about soy: More than 90% of the soybeans in this country are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which many people have concerns over the safety of. If you put yourself in this category, buy organic, which prohibits the use of GMOs.
The Competition: Almond Milk
One of the hottest nondairy milks on grocery shelves right now, almond milk has a sweet, nutty flavor that (we think!) tastes great in lattes and cereal. Despite the fact that almonds themselves are good sources of protein, most almond milks are basically devoid of the nutrient—with the exception of some newer protein-fortified almond milks, which have around 5 grams per cup. As for the other nutrients, almond milk is on par with a fortified soymilk—it’s generally a good source of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12. It’s not a good source of potassium, but it does boast a hefty dose of antioxidant vitamin E, because, almonds.
The Tropical: Coconut Milk
Not too long ago, when people talked about coconut milk they meant the thick, sometimes-sweetened stuff that came in a can and played a starring role in pina coladas and rich curries. The food had a bad reputation thanks to its high level of saturated fats, which we were under the impression were all incredibly harmful to your heart. Nowadays, coconut milk comes in a shelf-stable or refrigerated carton, and has gotten a bit of a reputation as a health food thanks to new research that medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), the form of saturated fat found in coconut, don’t hurt your heart and may even help with weight loss. What’s more, the predominant form of MCFAs in coconut is lauric acid, which researchers have discovered to have antimicrobial properties (in other words, it fights bad bugs in your body). As far as other nutrients like protein, vitamin D and calcium, coconut milk rates similarly to other nondairy milks. Oh, and don’t confuse it with coconut water: That’s the liquid found in the middle of the coconut.
The Wannabe Rebel: Hemp Milk
Made from hemp seeds, a somewhat distant relative of the marijuana plant that has no, I repeat, no drug-like effects, hemp milk is a good source of inflammation-busting omega 3 fatty acids (albeit, the less potent plant-based ones; fish is the best way to get the more efficient EPA/DHA omega 3s). Otherwise, hemp milk stacks up pretty similarly to the other nut-based milks nutrition-wise. Since this one is made from a seed, it may be good for people with nut and/or soy allergies who are opting out of dairy.
The New Kid on the Block: Cashew Milk
One of the newer nut milks on the market, cashew milk has a creamy flavor that works well in curries and coffee drinks. Nutrition-wise, the one we’ve tried is a decent source of vitamin B12 and also has some folate, magnesium, and selenium (thanks to the cashews), however a cup only has 10% of your daily need for calcium (most of the milk alternatives we looked at had closer to 25-30%).
The Low Allergen: Rice Milk
I saved rice milk for last because, well, it’s my least favorite of the bunch. Taste-wise, I find it thin and weak. Like the nut milks, it’s low in protein, however unlike any other alternative milk it’s also super-high in carbohydrates—a cup has around twice the amount of carbs you’ll find in the same size serving of dairy milk. In terms of other nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, “enriched” rice milk similar to the other milks we’ve covered—but beware, some non-enriched rice milks are on the market that have hardly any nutritional value. On the positive side: Very few people are allergic to rice so it’s a good alternative for people who can’t drink anything else.
Phew! If you got this far, you’re awesome. Thank you. You also deserve a break. Here’s a cheat sheet for all of the information we just bombarded you with (per one-cup serving):
So, in short, nondairy milks can be a tasty alternative to cow’s milk. And if the right nutrients are added in, they’re pretty good deals in the vitamin and mineral department. And some even have nutrient bonuses that you won’t find in cow’s milk (like iron and omega 3s). But with the exception of soy (and the newer pea protein-fortified milks), they’re not great sources of protein.
Personally, I love the flavor of nondairy milks like coconut and almond. But when I splash some on a bowl of cereal or into a smoothie, I’m mindful that I’m not adding any protein. Not the end of the world, I just sprinkle some nuts on top of my cereal or put a scoop of tahini, hemp seeds, or white cannellini beans (seriously!) in my smoothie to help bridge the gap.
What type of nondairy milk do you buy for home? And have you tried the coconut milk option at Starbucks yet? What did you think—we can’t wait to try it in a hot chocolate and iced coffee!