Non-dairy milks have risen tremendously in popularity the last few years—remember the days when the only person drinking soy milk was your lactose-intolerant dad?—but thanks to the fact that many of them are shelf-stable, they’re more popular than ever in the pandemic. There are endless alt-milk options and brands available, making it hard to navigate nutritious choices. According to nutrition expert Marisa Silver, RDN, the first thing you should do is look at the list of ingredients on the back of the container. “The best choices contain one or two recognizable ingredients, such as almonds and water,” Silver says. She recommends avoiding milks with a long list of unfamiliar substances: whole-food ingredients are the safest and most nutritious.
“Next, look at the amount of sugar the non-dairy milk contains,” she says. Many options are loaded with the sweet stuff, and Americans are already consuming more sugar than the recommended amount of 25 grams for adult women and 38 grams for men. “Select brands that contain less than 5 grams per serving, or better yet, zero grams of sugar, so that your milk substitute is not adding to your daily sugar intake.”
Be cognizant of the nutrients you are giving up by swapping milk with alternatives, too. “Milk is rich in protein, and a good source of vitamin D, calcium, riboflavin and vitamin B12. Many alternatives do not contain as much of these nutrients,” Silver explains. Make sure you're eating a wide variety of other foods in your diet that contain these nutrients, such as meat, fish, eggs, yogurt or cheese. If you don't eat dairy or animal products, look for high-protein milk options such as soy and hemp milk. Also, make sure your non-dairy milk is fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins.
Finally, switch up your non-dairy milks. “Made from different nuts, seeds, and other plant foods, minimally processed milk alternatives have a variety of nutrients to offer,” says Silver. "For instance, walnut milk is an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids while hazelnut milk is rich in vitamin E. Have fun with the diversity in the non-dairy milk aisle."
Here are Silver’s top healthy non-dairy milk recommendations. Whether you’re lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy, or are trying to eat a more plant-based diet, these are the six alt-milk options that pack the most nutritious punch.
Soy is the only milk alternative recognized by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Opt for unsweetened soy milk, and you’ll reap the benefits of 7 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber at 80 calories per cup. “Soy milk is rich in isoflavones, an antioxidant that has been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and osteoporosis,” Silver says. Soy protein contains all essential amino acids necessary for complete nutrition, and serves as a solid source of calcium, iron, zinc, and B vitamins.
Known for its nutty flavor, hemp milk is packed with important nutrients. It is rich in unsaturated essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, needed for building tissue and cell membranes in the body. “Unsweetened hemp milk contains about 80 calories and 5 grams of complete protein per cup,” explains Silver. “It also contains calcium and iron.” Don’t love the taste? Try flax or walnut milk for alternative sources of essential omega-3s.
Many unsweetened almond milks on the market tend to be lower in calories (about 30 to 40 calories per cup) because they are diluted with water. “However, know that this means they contain almost no protein—only around 1 gram per cup,” Silver says. The beverage is good option as a low-calorie coffee creamer, and some brands are more densely packed with almonds and contain more calories, protein, and healthy fats—look for those. “Use almond milk for smoothies and cereals to stay full for longer.” Almonds also are naturally rich in monounsaturated fats, the antioxidant vitamin E and magnesium. Looking for a similar alternative with a different taste? Try cashew milk.
These days, oat milk seems to be flying off the shelves. According to Silver, it contains zero cholesterol and adds about 1 gram of heart-healthy soluble fiber per cup to your daily intake. It is also a good non-dairy option for people with soy and nut allergies. “The downside is that oat milk tends to be higher in sugar (about 7 grams per cup) and calories (about 120 to 160 calories per cup).” The calcium, vitamins A, D, and B12 found in many oat milk brands are from fortified sources. If oats are not your thing, unsweetened rice milk is a grain-based milk alternative that tends to be lower in calories.
While you won’t find this in your supermarket, you may want to consider making your own pistachio milk. A new analysis recently found that pistachios are a complete protein containing all essential amino acids. “They are an excellent source of dietary fiber, B vitamins, copper, potassium, and magnesium,” says Silver. “Pistachios contain antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are known to benefit eye health. They’re also the lowest calorie nut per serving, so you get a nutritious bang for your buck.” To make your own pistachio (or any nut) milk: soak one cup of pistachios in water overnight, drain, then combine in a blender with three cups of fresh water until smooth. Use a cheesecloth to strain, and voila, you have fresh nut milk.
Consider Skipping: Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has a rich, creamy taste but it lacks protein. “Most of the calories in coconut milk comes from saturated fat, which we should be keeping to 5 to 6 percent of our daily caloric intake per day,” Silver says. If you are a coconut milk fan, look for unsweetened, low-fat coconut milks in the supermarket aisles instead. In some studies, coconut intake has been associated with improved cholesterol and triglyceride levels. “Also, of note, the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) in the fat of coconuts has been shown to reduce waist circumference and increase metabolism. However, there is not enough MCT in coconut milk to reap these benefits.”