From coffee shop menus to store shelves, there's no doubt you’ve noticed the growing popularity of plant-based milks, and perhaps, you’ve even tried one. According to Statista, milk substitutes accounted for three billion dollars of revenue in the United States in 2020 — and by 2025 that number is predicted to increase to almost four billion.
Although non-dairy milks have been available for decades, now there’s an ever-growing number of options for plant-curious eaters. If you’re looking for a dairy alternative, here’s what to look for — plus some of the plant-based milk options to mix into your smoothies, lighten your coffee or add to your overnight oats.
Why you might want to consider a plant-based milk
In the past, the main reason to try a dairy alternative was a milk allergy, lactose intolerance, or a preference for avoiding dairy foods. Now, even milk drinkers make room in the fridge for plant-based options. In fact, according to an International Food Information Council report, while cow’s milk is still the leading contender in the milk aisle, about a quarter of milk drinkers consume an alternative sometimes.
There are several reasons to trade your dairy for a plant-based milk. Say you’re actively trying to reduce your consumption of animal foods — even if you don’t want to eliminate them, a plant-based milk can help you do that.
There may also be instances when a plant-based milk meets your dietary preferences. For example, depending on the variety you choose, plant-based milk may be a lighter option, with fewer calories and less fat than low-fat milk. It might be the right choice for meals like smoothies with other ingredients, such as Greek yogurt or nut butter, to meet your needs. If you’re someone who doesn’t eat much seafood or other sources of omega-3 fatty acids, flax milk, which is rich in them, may be a good option.
What should you look for in a plant-based milk?
Since plant-based milks replace dairy milk — at least in part —it’s important to consider the nutrients in cow’s milk. A cup of low-fat milk contains 8 grams of protein. It also supplies a range of nutrients, including:
● 20% of the daily value for calcium
● 20% of daily value for vitamin A
● 15% of the daily value for vitamin D
● 8% of the daily value for potassium
The total fat and saturated fat content vary depending on the type of milk you choose, but for the sake of comparing, a serving of low-fat milk has 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
Here are some nutritional pointers for buying plant-based milk.
- Look for varieties with no added sugars. Milk substitutes, like oat milk, are often deceptively high, with 7 grams of added sugar per cup. That’s almost two teaspoons’ worth.
- Choose one that’s fortified to match the calcium and vitamin D in dairy milk. We tend to fall short on these nutrients anyway, and reducing your dairy consumption will make that more likely. Check labels, but it may mean skipping store brands since they may not be fortified to the same degree as name brands. Also, give your milk a shake before you pour it since the calcium may settle to the bottom.
- Consider other nutrients that may be lacking in your diet. Plant-based milks are often fortified with additional vitamins and minerals that may be beneficial. For instance, vegans and vegetarians might prefer a milk substitute fortified to meet 100% of their vitamin B 12 needs.
- Seek a version with soy or pea protein if you’re giving it to kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages plant-based milk for young kids since it doesn’t match the nutritional profile of cow’s milk. Even when fortified, you may not absorb the nutrients in the same way. Still, if your kid requires an alternative milk, choose a blend that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D and that contains at least 8 grams of protein.
- Watch out for additives. Plant-based milks usually contain thickening agents to give them a creamy texture. Most of them are considered safe, but carrageenan is questionable as this ingredient has been linked to gut inflammation.
What are my options when it comes to plant-based milks?
Almond milk and oat milk are still the leading choices for plant-based milk drinkers. Below are no-sugar-added options for each. Plus, some smart choices in other categories to consider adding to your shopping list.
Most vanilla plant-based milks are sweetened, but this version has no added sugar. Plus, it’s low in calories and carbs, and is an excellent source of calcium. Make sure to load up on vitamin D from other foods or a supplement.
Nutrition stats (per cup): 30 calories; 2.5g fat (0g sat fat); 1g protein; 1g carbohydrate; 1g fiber 0g added sugar; 0% DV Vitamin D; 35% DV calcium
Here’s an unsweetened variety of this trendy milk. As with any oat milk, it doesn’t contain any meaningful protein, but it does match or exceed milk’s calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and potassium levels.
Nutrition stats (per cup): 45 calories; 0.5g fat (0g sat fat); 1g protein; 8g carbohydrate; 1g fiber 0g added sugar; 20% DV Vitamin D; 25% DV calcium
This innovative powdered product is made from a blend of oats, macadamia nuts, and sacha inchi, a South American plant. Simply mix it with water and refrigerate the unused portion. It’s not fortified to match milk’s calcium or vitamin D, but it does have more fiber than most milks we’ve seen. The brand also makes a powdered creamer for those looking for a plant-based alternative to lighten coffee.
Nutrition stats (per cup based on the unsweetened variety): 50 calories; 1g fat (0g sat fat); 2g protein; 8g carbohydrate; 2g fiber 0g added sugar; 10% DV Vitamin D; 10% DV calcium
This milk is naturally sweet, thanks to real bananas, but the flavor isn’t overpowering. It’s creamier than many other milk alternatives and would be delicious in a smoothie or overnight oats. You’ll want to get protein and vitamin D elsewhere, though.
Nutrition stats (per cup): 60 calories; 3g fat (0g sat fat); 1g protein; 9g carbohydrate; 1g fiber 0g added sugar; 0% DV Vitamin D; 25% DV calcium
While most nut milks contain thickeners, these frozen wedges contain two simple ingredients: almonds and Himalayan sea salt. Blend two wedges with ¾ cups water to make a glass of almond milk, which you can use any way you typically do. However, you’ll still need to make up for the nutrients in milk.
Nutrition stats (per serving): 90 calories; 8g fat (0.5g sat fat); 4g protein; 2g carbohydrate; 1g fiber, 0g added sugar; 0% DV Vitamin D; 4% DV calcium
Here’s a variety of milk that’s suitable for many needs. It’s lower in calories than conventional milk, but it has a similar amount of protein, vitamin D, and calcium. It also boasts 1,200 mg of omega-3 fatty acids and 60% of your vitamin B12 requirements.
Nutrition stats (per serving): 60 calories; 3g fat (0g sat fat); 8g protein; 1g carbohydrate; 0g fiber, 0g added sugar; 10% DV Vitamin D; 25% DV calcium
Pea milk is a top-trending plant-based milk, according to a recent Harris Poll. Many states, including California and Florida, buy more of this milk compared to the national average. And it makes nutritional sense, given that it’s an even match for the protein content in milk, and it’s got more calcium and vitamin D. It even has a full days’ worth of vitamin B12.
Nutrition stats (per serving): 80 calories; 4.5g fat (0.5g sat fat); 8g protein; <1g carbohydrate; <1g fiber, 0g added sugar; 30% DV Vitamin D; 35% DV calcium