Photo: Shutterstock / Alexander Prokopenko
When it comes to milk alternatives, it seems there are more options than ever. From soy to rice to nut milks and more, many folks are choosing nondairy milks to accommodate allergies or vegan lifestyles, or to aid with specific health concerns. Whatever the reason, choosing the right nondairy milk can be challenging. But I have all the info you need to make the right choices based on your preferences and dietary needs.
Milk alternatives aren’t just drinkable; they’re useful in recipes. Try your favorite milk alternative in this overnight oatmeal recipe.
When it comes to milk alternatives, it’s more than just soy. Rice, almond, hazelnut, coconut-based and many other milks are available at most supermarkets. Each has its own flavor and nutrition profile, but here’s what you can generally expect from the alternatives on the market today.
- Fewer calories but more ingredients than dairy milk.
- Less fat than full-fat dairy milk (although coconut-based milks tend to be slightly higher in fat).
- Higher water content (which makes an alternative a better source for hydrating than dairy milk).
- Less protein than dairy milk (except soy milk, which is considered the closest to real dairy in terms of its protein profile).
- Added sugar in some products. Registered dietitian Elisa Bremner advises avoiding sweetened versions, since you probably don’t need extra sugar in your diet.
- Calcium-fortified products that help you get a proper serving of this essential nutrient.
- New products arriving almost daily. If you’re adventurous, be on the lookout for new options!
The major milk alternatives and your best bets among them
Let’s start with the most common substitute. Soy milk is a nondairy classic and it packs a punch with its high protein content. But this liquid extract from soybeans can also have a beanlike or even chalky taste that can be off-putting to some. Still, soy milk offers a smooth consistency and about 8 grams of protein per serving. And that creamy texture makes it a great addition to overnight oats.
Rice milk tends to be sweet, with a thin and watery consistency. It’s naturally sweet, although some brands add sweetener. A particularly tasty choice is Rice Dream—the original, unsweetened flavor. Bremner points out, though, that it’s low in protein (1 gram per serving), while still packing the same caloric punch as a cup of 2% dairy milk (120 calories).
Almond milk has a subtle, nutty taste, making it a favorite for those seeking a little more flavor. Personally, my hands-down favorite is Blue Diamond Almond Breeze—the unsweetened original. Smooth and mildly sweet, it has only 30 calories per serving, less than half that of skim milk (although it contains only 1 gram of protein).
Remember this: Coconut-based milks are not the same as canned coconut milk. In other words, save the canned stuff for tonight’s curry or a pina colada. Coconut-based alternatives have that rich, creamy coconut taste but drink more like milk (as opposed to the ultra thick consistency of canned coconut milk). Coconut-based milk alternatives tend to have more fat than, say, almond milk, but you can still find versions that are significantly lower in calories than dairy milk. For example, Silk Unsweetened Coconut Milk has only 45 calories per serving while packing in five times the calcium of a glass of skim. That’s my kind of substitute.
Starting with roasted cashews, this alternative takes on a slightly nutty flavor (just like other nut-based milks). The average glass of cashew milk also packs in about 45 percent of your daily dose of calcium (compared to the 30 percent from a glass of dairy milk). Cashew milk is also a favorite of paleo folks. Check this out if you’re curious about this diet craze.
Warm and nutty, hazelnut milk makes a flavorful alternative. Of course, if you’re not a fan of hazelnut flavor, it won’t work for you. But if you do happen to like the nut that gives Nutella its flavor, you’ll not only love it, you may want to add it to this recipe for hazelnut coffee. Hazelnut milk is a bit more challenging to find, but Pacific Foods makes a great version, and it comes in a chocolate flavor!
Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds, which are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that have so many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties. Hemp seeds also produce cannabis, the plant used to make marijuana, but hemp milk does not produce any of the psychoactive effects of marijuana.
Oat milk is neither creamy nor watery. But does that make it “just right”? Some people describe it as tasting like milk left over from a bowl of cereal. Others enjoy it for its skim-milk consistency and mild sweetness. If you’re new to nondairy milks, you may want to try another alternative first.
Special mention for this eggnog alternative
All right, it’s not so much a milk alternative as a milky-treat alternative, but Califia Farms makes such a wonderful eggnog alternative, Almond Milk Holiday Nog, that I couldn’t leave it out. Smooth, thick, creamy and sweet, it’s legit eggnog as far as I’m concerned, except at 50 calories per serving and with no dairy fat whatsoever. Plus, I can mix it into a bowl of warm brown rice for a mock rice pudding, or pour it into a glass with a splash of rum for a by-the-fire treat.
I know there are lots of nondairy options to choose from, but these should make it easier to find the milk alternative that’s just right for you.