They're rich, smooth, and creamy.
Today, you'll see as many dairy-free yogurts, milk, and cheeses line the dairy aisle shelves as their cow's milk counterparts. As plant-based diets become more popular, people are looking to ditch dairy for a variety of reasons.
Whether you’re skipping cow’s milk because it sends you straight to the bathroom or you want to cut back on saturated fat from animal products, dairy-free yogurts can make a great substitute. But choosing dairy-free yogurt that lives up to the nutritional benefits of cow's milk varieties can be challenging.
“Dairy-free yogurt is a great option if you are looking for a dairy alternative due to personal preference or lactose intolerance—they are lactose-free but still contain a decent amount of healthy fats,” says Angel Planells, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It is important to look at these yogurts as a satisfying snack, with the key things to focus on being calories, fiber, sugar (especially added sugars), protein, and fat.” Let’s decode what exactly to look for on the label.
“Comparing food labels among non-dairy yogurts can be very challenging, because nutrients widely vary,” says Kristen Smith, RD, Atlanta-based dietitian, founder of 360 Family Nutrition and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That’s because of the differences in the main ingredient used to make yogurt.
Most dairy-free yogurts you see you in stores are made with almonds, cashews, soy, coconut, flaxseed, or oats as the base. But finding the best one for you comes down to taste and mouthfeel, says Planells. She adds that the plain version is a good option because you can add your own toppings, like fresh fruit, raw nuts, and ground cinnamon for flavor. This typically helps to cut back on added sugar.
Speaking of sweet, sugar poses one of the main problems with dairy-free yogurts because many manufacturers kick up a low-profile flavor with more of the refined stuff. One way you can check if there's added sugar is to look for an added sugars line in the nutrition facts; it's usually listed right under sugar.
You want to aim for brands with less than five grams of added sugar, Smith says. If the label doesn’t list sugars separately yet, check the ingredient list. A dairy-free yogurt that's truly sugar-free shouldn't see sugar or any variation of it, such as cane sugar or maple syrup, in the ingredient list. You also want to check if it's one of the main ingredients in the yogurt, and you can check this by seeing whether sugar is listed as one of the first three ingredients. When sugar is listed higher on the ingredient list, it means that the product contains a lot of it. “One of the surprising things is that some non-dairy yogurts labeled as plain, still have sugar as one of the first few ingredients,” Smith says.
In addition to sugar, you want to be mindful of the protein count, says Smith. Some dairy-free yogurts might contain upward of 10 grams of protein (typically in soy-based products), but a good number to search for is around six grams. Coconut yogurts might have a little less, so consider adding some nuts to increase its filling profile.
While you don’t necessarily need a fortified product, dairy-free yogurts with calcium or vitamin D are good options to have if you're following a plant-based diet or are completely eliminating cow's milk products from your diet. Be sure to also opt for dairy-free yogurts with gut-protecting probiotics. Look for live active cultures like acidipholus, bifidobacterial, thermophilus, or bulgaricus listed on the back of the label, Planells says.
For a spoonful that’ll satisfy these nutritionist-approved requirements, check out the list of the best dairy-free yogurts on the market.