Nondairy Milk: The Truth Behind Your Favorite Plant-Based Alternatives

Jonah Malin
Photo by Patrick Mardis on Unsplash

“Hey man, do you want us to add a splash of oat milk to your nitro?”

I was at a tiny boutique coffee shop in 2016— the kind with grungy baristas, tattered books, and no menu.

Before I could respond, my girlfriend happily chimed in: “Yes, definitely!”

At the time, oats were, to my knowledge, still breakfast food. I’d never heard of anyone milking them or infusing oats into an $11 latte.

Clearly, this hidden gem under the train tracks was way ahead of its time.

Got (Dairy-Free) Milk?

The rise of “white gold” or plant-based alternatives to milk has come at an interesting time for consumers. We’re more health-conscious than ever before, aware of sensitivities, allergies, and intolerances.

We want alternatives and choices when shopping, and the nondairy market has stepped in to meet those needs.

Soy made the first charge followed by almond milk’s meteoric rise. But the s-word (sustainability) had synthetic milkers scrambling.

Now, oat milk has slid into the top spot of cultural relevance with brilliant marketing and a dedicated fanbase driving an irreversible wedge between younger consumers and dairy.

Brands like Oatly are making alt-dairy fun, interesting, and, as Stuart Forsyth, a former barista and the co-founder of vegan coffee brand Minor Figures put it: “Oatly made oats sexy.”

While options are great, it can be overwhelming to pick one that fits your dietary needs and lifestyle.

To make your next grocery trip easier, I’ve laid out everything you need to know about soy, oat, almond, and coconut milk, ranking them by their nutritional profile.

Before diving in, let’s lay a few ground rules.

First, the nutrients found in plant milk are completely different than those found in cow’s milk. It’s not going to be a one-to-one swap without bulking up other areas of your diet.

There is also a ton of diversity with plant-based milks when it comes to fat, carb, protein, and sugar content depending on the flavor and brand. The options below are all “unsweetened.”

Taste does not factor in here. We’re going by nutritional profile only.

Finally, I used registered dietician Jaclyn London’s recommended checklist:

  • At least 7–8g protein per serving
  • As few ingredients as possible
  • The word “unsweetened” and “0g added sugar”
  • Limited saturated fat (especially in ones made with coconut or added protein)
  • Less than 140mg of sodium per cup
  • Fortification with calcium and vitamin D
  • Nutrients you’re personally concerned about

So, here are the top alternative milk choices, ranked:

1. Soy Milk

Soy milk is the most nutritionally similar to cow's milk, making it the best choice for someone who’s trying to replace the protein they used to get from dairy.

Made by soaking and blending soybeans and straining the pulp, one cup of soy milk has about 8g of plant-based protein, which is far higher than other plant-based milk options. Soy milk is also packed with lots of calcium, antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats.

It’s an especially good option for those who are lactose intolerant or following a vegan diet.

1 cup of unsweetened Silk soy milk contains:
80 calories
4 g fat
3 g carbs
2 g fiber
1 g sugar
7 g protein

2. Oat Milk

Besides being the most sustainable option on this list, oats are cheap and easy to grow.

Nutritionally, oat milk obviously has the health-promoting activities of oats.

“Oats are a great source of slow-burning energy, fiber which is beneficial for gut health, and beta-glucan which can help reduce cholesterol,” says dietitian, Rebecca Gawthorne.

But oat milk has less than half the amount of protein in soy milk — and more natural sugar.

Personally, I use a few tablespoons of oat milk in coffee or tea. If you’re relying on oat milk for calcium, you will need to ensure you choose a calcium-fortified one.

1 cup of Oatly oat milk contains:
120 calories
5 g fat
16 g carbs
2 g fiber
7 g sugar
3 g protein

3. Almond Milk

Almond milk is tricky because there are so many variations.

Consumers initially fell for almond milk because it’s low calorie and markets the nutritional benefits of nuts — healthy fats, fiber, and minerals. However, most almond milk contains less than 10% (going as low as 2%) of nuts. And low-calorie in this instance translates to low-nutrient.

The main ingredient is water often combined with oils and sugar. It’s very low in protein compared to cow and soy milk, coming in at less than 2 grams of protein per serving.

1 cup of unsweetened Blue Diamond Almond Breeze almond milk contains:
30 calories
2.5 g fat
1 g carbs
1 g fiber
0 g sugar
1 g protein

4. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk comes from the flesh of mature brown coconuts. It’s the most versatile on this list, used for cooking around the globe. Though coconut-based products are associated with MCTs, glorified for their metabolism-boosting properties, the low levels in coconut milk are unlikely to affect fat burn.

There are two very different coconut milk options.

The shelf-stable or refrigerated kind is similar in consistency to almond milk, watered down to reduce fat.

Canned coconut milk is rich, creamy, thick, and high in saturated fat.

1 cup of unsweetened SO Delicious coconut milk (carton) contains:
45 calories
4.5 g fat
1 g carbs
0 g fiber
1 g sugar
0 g protein

1/3 cup of Native Forest brand coconut milk (can) contains:
140 calories
14 g fat
2 g carbs
0 g fiber
1 g sugar
1 g protein

To Recap

The best milk alternatives are typically soy or pea-based blends.

Soy milk has the most protein and calcium, including all nine essential amino acids.

If you’re shopping for soy milk, pick an unsweetened, organic brand.

Oat milk has a slight edge over nut milk.

Despite being higher in calories and carbohydrates, oat milk stands out on the nutrition front. With protein, natural sweetness, fiber, and whole grain, it’s an excellent option in small servings.

Just remember, while oats in their original form come with many health benefits, its milk counterpart is not as impressive.

Ignore packaging and become familiar with ingredients.

Brands use statements like “nondairy”, “gluten-free”, and “soy-free,” building an instinctive level of trust with consumers. You believe the product is “healthy” because it doesn’t include trigger ingredients we’ve been conditioned to perceive as bad.

These milk substitutes can be hidden sources of added sugar, so it’s crucial to check labels before you swap out a dairy-based option for a plant-based one.

Don’t overthink your milk.

Most of the world is doing just fine without it.

Essentially, we are amidst a battle between an industry we don’t fully understand attempting to replace a product we probably don’t need.

That said, plant-based milks do boast several nutritional benefits, vitamins, and minerals. “Since we all have unique nutrition needs and concerns, [what to look for] can vary from person to person,” Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D., of Street Smart Nutrition, says.

All this variety means you can probably find something to suit whatever it is your diet needs.

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I am a content strategist, career advice author, and contributing writer based in Washington, DC. Join me as I explore health & wellness, productivity, philosophy, and life. Find me @Beyond Definition // Medium // Ladders //

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