Healthy Eating

Breaking Down Plant-Based Milk Options

Staring at the selections of plant-based milk is like looking at the shampoo aisle. So. Many. Choices!

Sales of plant-based dairy alternatives are booming as more people pass on dairy for medical or environmental reasons.

Made of nuts, legumes, or grains, the plant-based milks come with questions. Let’s explore:

Is it nutritious?

The answer here is it depends. Dairy milk is a good source of calcium, vitamins B12 and D, and protein. Nutrition in plant-based milks varies by plant. Thinking of it as a nutrition substitute for dairy could lead to a vitamin or mineral deficiency, so make sure to get your nutrients elsewhere.

Non-dairy sources of calcium include seeds, salmon, beans and leafy greens. Vitamin B12 is found in eggs, fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, and shiitake mushrooms. Add protein with quinoa, nuts, beans, and seeds. Look for alternative milks fortified with vitamin D or ask your doctor about a supplement.

What are those added ingredients?

A top ingredient is usually water, which is used to extract the plant material and turn it into a beverage. Other ingredients are added to thicken, preserve, improve taste, and for consistency.

Vanilla- or chocolate-flavored milks and cartons marked barista blend will likely contain added sugars and fats.

Common additives carrageenan and vegetable gums are approved by the FDA and considered safe in the small quantities found in milks. Carrageenan has been accused of causing inflammation and digestive issues. If you’re concerned, many varieties are carrageenan-free.

What’s so bad about dairy?

Some people don’t tolerate lactose. Others experience an allergic reaction, inflammation, or irritable bowel syndrome. Others want to stay away from animal products or are concerned about the dairy industry’s environmental impact.

But it’s not all bad. Dairy is a good source of vitamins and minerals. It also contains saturated fat, which should be consumed in moderation.

How does it taste?

We tested original versions of several varieties of plant milk. Oat, flax and cashew were the top picks among our tasters. Coconut was universally the least liked. Here’s what our tasters had to say:

“I’m pretty into the cashew one.” –Kate

“The hemp one would be great in smoothies and the oat one for cereal,” –Joy.

On coconut milk: “Oh that’s disgusting,” –Jennifer

“[Oat] definitely has a thicker consistency. It tastes like oats,” –Matt.

“So, oat in coffee is an adjustment but I’d drink it. I like it for drinking straight though!” –Jennifer

“The flax milk is good in my coffee, but separates, which is annoying.” –Laurie


The winners:

Lowest calorie: Almond with 30 calories per serving.

Highest protein: Flax with 8 grams. Plus, 25% vitamin D and 25% of vitamin B12 recommendations.

Lowest fat: Oat with 2 grams. Highest was hemp.

Based on the varieties we tested. Confirm on package labels.

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