What are the healthiest milk alternatives?

Read the nutrition and ingredient labels and avoid added sugars and stabilizers.

November 11, 2022
What are the healthiest milk alternatives?

Plant-based (or non-dairy) milk alternatives, which have risen in popularity over the past decade, have become nearly as widely available as cow’s milk. There are so many non-dairy options to choose from: almond, soy, pistachio, hemp, macadamia … the list is long and somewhat overwhelming. While all are plant-based milks, they range in flavor, texture and nutritional composition. Finding the healthiest alternative milk comes down to preference and nutritional needs. If your intention is to replace cow’s milk with non-dairy milk, focus on one that’s high in calcium and vitamin D, the key nutrients that cow’s milk offers. If you’re adding non-dairy milk to your diet, consider the relative calories, sugar and nutritional benefits that each option offers. 

Why consider plant-based (non-dairy) instead of animal-based (dairy) milk?

Dairy-alternative milks tend to have fewer calories, less sugar (if unsweetened), more water (better for hydration), less fat (except for coconut-based milk), and offer a better source of certain nutrients (such as absorbable iron) than dairy milk. 

With the increasing popularity and accessibility of a wide variety of alternative milks, many turn to them as an addition or substitute to their diet, especially those people with:

  • Dairy or lactose intolerance or allergy
  • A better feeling when not drinking milk 
  • Personal or religious beliefs 
  • A distaste for milk, but a desire for a creamy beverage or milk-like product for cooking
  • A vegan diet or lifestyle
  • Concerns about inflammation
  • Crohns, Colitis, or inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Concerns over antibiotics, pesticides, or hormones 
  • Ethical concerns

Need more guidance on the advantages and disadvantages of dairy consumption? See this report.

What makes a plant-based milk?

Milk is made by soaking the nut, seed or grain; blending it with water; and then straining the mixture to remove the remaining solids. Salt, vanilla or other flavorings may be added to enhance the taste. Most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, potassium, B12 and other nutrients that make it comparable to cow’s milk. Most milks last for just a few days, so to prolong the shelf life, typically stabilizers and emulsifiers are added.

How to choose the healthiest alternative milk 

The healthiest alternative milks (plant-based) are ones that are low in calories and saturated fat; have no added sugars; and are free of stabilizers, emulsifiers and other additives that prolong shelf life. The healthiest choice can be different for different people, so we’ve broken down these categories to explain what to look out for when choosing your milk. 

Calories

Most dairy milk alternatives have between 30-130 calories per cup. The amount of fat, sugars, and protein make up the total caloric number. The lower the calories, the fewer macronutrients the milk contains. Therefore, you should bear in mind that if you’re seeking milk to get healthy fats and protein, those milks contain more calories than the low-protein, low-fat options. 

Fat

Ideally, the fat in plant-based milk should come from unsaturated fats (both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats), which are known as healthy fats because they help reduce LDL cholesterol. Some milks contain saturated fats either naturally or from additives, so it’s best to ingest those milks only in small quantities (under 1.5g/serving), if at all. 

Sugars

Choose milks with zero added sugars; always opt for the unsweetened version. Some milks contain naturally occurring sugars, such as coconut or oat, but those have typically less than a few grams of sugar per serving. Even “Original” versions of milks contain a few grams of added sugar. Most brands offer flavored and unsweetened versions. “Barista Blends” always contain significantly higher sugars and additives to improve the foam and frothiness of the heated drink. 

Stabilizers, emulsifiers, and additives

Stabilizers and emulsifiers are not necessarily harmful ingredients; they help maintain a satisfying mouthfeel and texture. In mass production, stabilizers in plant-based milks help avoid sedimentation and fat separation. Alternative milks often have higher amounts of fiber and starch, which result in larger molecules that need to be suspended during storage. Popular stabilizers include gums (guar, locust bean, gellan, xanthan). 

Emulsifiers are substances that bond waters with fat to create a consistent creamy texture. Typically, emulsifiers in plant-based milks include lecithins (such as sunflower lecithin). Carrageenan is an additive used to thicken and prevent separation. Research is still unclear on whether this leads to intestinal damage and inflammation. If you have a sensitive gut, avoid these types of products when buying your milk. 

Milks found in the non-refrigerated section will have more additives to preserve shelf life than those in the refrigerated section.

The healthiest alternative milks 

Soy milk

Soy milk’s nutritional profile is the closest (among plant-based alternatives) to that of cow’s milk. Soy milk is made from soybeans, which are a “complete protein,” meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids the body needs and cannot make itself. A glass of soymilk contains the same amount of protein as a glass of cow’s milk, half the fat as whole milk, and is often fortified to contain the same amounts of calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients dairy milk offers.  

Soy is a rich source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and other health benefits. A 2019 meta-analysis of 23 studies that included over 330,000 patients showed that regularly consuming soy has been linked to decreased risk of heart disease, hormonal cancers, and all-cause mortality. While not all research studies, especially those in Western countries with lower soy intake levels, have been able to replicate these health benefits, a 2020 analysis of 3 large cohorts in the U.S. did find that “higher intake of isoflavones and tofu was associated with a moderately lower risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD)” in the population studied. 

But are there risks associated with soy consumption? Some research suggests that consuming regular amounts of soy over time can cause a rise in estrogen levels and even lead to male infertility (in animal studies) because of the high concentration of isoflavones the plant contains. (Isoflavones are a class of plant compounds in the flavonoid category that have antioxidant, anticancer, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and the soybean plant contains isoflavones that have both estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effects on the body.) Harvard School of Public Health argues that the type of study, hormone levels of the research subjects, as well as the type of soy can cause study results to vary greatly — so much more research is needed. 

The bottom line: Soy milk is a good non-dairy milk option because of its nutrient profile, but it may be wise to vary your milks if you’re concerned with estrogen levels or thyroid issues. If you’re not sure, talk to your doctor. 

Organic soymilk comes from non-GMO soybeans and isn’t sourced from crops that contain conventional pesticides and herbicides. 

Best soy milk brands:

Almond milk

Like all nut milks, almond milk is made from soaking the nuts in water, blending them up, and straining away the solids. It often has a nutty and slightly sweet taste. Even without any fortification, almond milk is a great source of magnesium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, and antioxidant vitamin E, but it is low in protein and other nutrients (so it’s often fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D). The fats in almond and other nut milks are healthy unsaturated fats, which have been shown to protect against heart disease. Overall, almond milk is relatively low in calories and carbohydrates, which makes it a great option (unless you are worried about protein intake). Keep in mind that brands can vary greatly in terms of calorie and fat content, so it’s important to check the nutrition facts panel before selecting your product.

Best almond milk brands:

Cashew milk

Cashew milk is similar to almond milk in its light nutty flavor, but it is even richer and creamier than cow’s milk. Like almond milk, cashew milk is low in protein and calcium, but it represents a low-calorie, low-carb option. 

Best cashew milk brands:

Coconut milk

Coconut milk is appealing because of its creamy, coconutty taste. It’s also a good option for those with any type of nut allergy. However, coconut milk doesn’t contain protein, is much higher in saturated fat (about 2g per serving), and because of the high level of naturally occurring sugars in coconuts, may contain more sugars than other plant-based milks. On the other hand, the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconuts have been linked to “good cholesterol“ levels. Plus, many brands are fortified with nutrients that make these milks comparable to other nutrient-dense plant-based milks. 

There are two types of coconut milk in the store: the coconut milk typically packaged in a can (designed for culinary purposes) and the coconut milk found in both the refrigerated and unrefrigerated milk sections. While both are made from coconut flesh (listed in the ingredients as coconut or coconut cream), the proportions of water to coconut are vastly different; the dairy milk alternative packs much more water, leaving it lower in calories, lighter in flavor, and lower in fats than its canned, culinary counterparts. 

Best coconut brands:

Oat milk

Oat milk has become an increasingly popular option since it became a widespread alternative dairy option in coffeeshops. Oatmilk has a very creamy and mild flavor. It’s lower in calories than soy and nut milks, offers a few grams of fiber per serving, has little to no fat. but doesn't contain much protein. Oat milk may not be a good option for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease (CD), so check the label. 

Best oat milk brands:

Flax milk

Flax milk is made from flax seeds, a great source of healthy fats and fiber. These milks are low in calories and sugars, but also lower in proteins compared with some other plant-based milks. Its earthy and nutty flavor can be a draw for some, but typically this milk isn’t as creamy as oat or soy. Flax milk is a great vegan option for those allergic to nuts or soy, and the healthy bioactive compounds in flax seeds (such as alpha linoleic acid) have been linked to decreased risk of heart disease, cancer and gastrointestinal health. 

Best flax milk brand:

Some of the key nutrient characteristics of various plant-based milks, in comparison to whole (animal) milk, are profiled in this chart: 

healthiest milk alternatives

Key takeaways

There are a wide variety of healthy milk alternatives that offer similar texture, nutrients, and uses. When searching for the healthiest milk alternative, be sure to read the nutrition facts panel and the ingredients label. Focus on finding the best option for your calorie, protein, fat and sugar preferences and avoid ingredients such as added stabilizers, gums, and — most importantly — added sugars. Avoid “barista blends” completely and opt instead for the unsweetened flavored versions if you need a bit of flavor. 

Need more guidance on adopting a plant-based diet? See this report.

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