The dairy aisle looks a lot different than it used to. While previous excursions to this section of the grocery store simply involved digging past the first two or three gallon jugs of milk to find one with a reasonable expiration date, plant-based dairy alternatives have led to some great changes. Depending on the store, you may find almond, rice, and soy milk — though, in more specialized retailers, you’ll see some unconventional alternatives like hemp, quinoa, and oat milk. Our dairy-free horizons have definitely gotten broader.
There are many, many reasons to choose non-dairy alternatives over animals’ milk. Vegans often prefer them due to the horrific treatment of cows in the dairy industry or because of the fact that it is simply unnatural. Even non-vegans may opt to ditch cow’s milk, either due to medical conditions that can be exacerbated by it — such as GERD or those who have suffered symptoms of heart disease — or because of the health benefits of plant-based milks.
Whatever the reason to change from dairy, there are a plethora of options. Which plant-based milks are the best for your health? Which most closely simulates the taste of traditional milk? Here is a review of a dozen vegan-friendly milk alternatives that you can try today, from best to worst:
(Note: Be wary when shopping. Many of these items are loaded with added vitamins and minerals, which may have limited bioavailability — meaning that your body may struggle to absorb them. If you want to avoid enriched beverages, try making your own plant-based milk at home!)
Almond Milk – Grade: A
Health: Perhaps the most common dairy alternative, almond milk can be found in nearly any grocery store. But is it good for you? While almonds pack a ton of nutritional value, including high protein, fiber, and healthy fats, only a handful of the seeds are used in a typical carton of the stuff. But that doesn’t make it a bad choice. Almond milk is still a solid option that provides a modest amount of nutrients — with no health drawbacks (as opposed to some other items in this list). The fact that it has very low calories and 0g of sugar (unsweetened) makes it a rock solid-choice.
Taste: Almond milk has a slightly sweet, nutty taste that makes it incredibly versatile. It can be used in practically any recipe and for any purpose. A skosh of it works wonders for a cup of coffee, and it is your breakfast cereal’s best friend. Certain brands do have a slight bitterness, so do some research before picking up any.
Cashew Milk – Grade: A
Health: At only 25 calories per cup, cashew milk is one of the best choices for those on a strict diet. In terms of nutrition, it is nearly identical to almond milk, though it has less fat and fiber. While it, like almond milk, lacks much protein, it also free of phytates (check out “Soy Milk” below), making it a wise choice. Again, seek an unsweetened variety to keep your sugar intake low.
Taste: Cashew milk is the king of the crop in terms of flavor. It is just slightly more creamy and less nutty than almond milk. It is also extremely versatile. Almond milk and cashew milk are nutritionally neck-and-neck, and fans seem evenly divided, so these options are in a tie for top dog.
Quinoa Milk – B+
Health: Looking for a good way to introduce some more protein, fiber, and essential amino acids to your diet? Quinoa milk could be a good option for you. This low-fat alternative contains quercetin, which great for your immune system (it’s actually a common ingredient in supplements). And, contrary to common misconception, quinoa doesn’t have a lot of starch, making this a good choice for people looking to reduce their sugar intake.
Taste: Quinoa milk can be pricey, but it has a lot of fans who are willing to pay for the pleasure. Nevertheless, the taste is divisive. It is creamy enough to work as a decent milk substitute in nearly any recipe, but, like some other items in this list, it can taste a bit bitter. If you disguise the bitterness, this nutritional powerhouse is a great option.
Hazelnut Milk – Grade: B
Health: Hazelnut milk is rarely produced, which is why you might have not seen it on store shelves. It’s nutritional content is comparable to more common choices like almond milk. Unfortunately, the primary producer of it, Pacific Natural Foods, does not offer an unsweetened variety. That means, unless you make your own at home, you are looking at downing 15g of sugar per cup, making it by far the least viable choice for diabetics. Nevertheless, if you happen across an unsweetened variety, it is worth giving it a shot.
Taste: If you are looking for something that tastes like liquid Nutella, you will be sorely disappointed; hazelnut milk doesn’t have a strong taste like our favorite chocolate spread. Actually, its taste is much more similar to cashew or almond milk than you might expect. It has a nuttiness and texture that rival the best plant-based dairy alternatives.
Hemp Milk – Grade: B-
Health: Hemp milk is made by blending hemp seeds (and no, it doesn’t have any psychoactive ingredients, contrary to superstitious murmurs online). It is a great choice for people with nut allergies. It has some health advantages, including a higher amount of omega-3 than possibly any other dairy alternative, as well as a fair amount of magnesium. Furthermore, it has all 10 essential amino acids.
Taste: Hemp milk has a fairly neutral taste, so it is suitable for many uses, including baking and as a drink for your morning breakfast. Some consumers are critical about certain brands, stating that they have a gritty texture. Unsweetened varieties may have a bitter aftertaste.
Soy Milk – Grade: C+
Health: Soy milk has many more calories than some options at the top of this list, but it is a phenomenal source of protein and contains a minimal amount of saturated fats. However, despite being one of the most popular dairy alternatives, soy milk might not be ideal for your nutritional needs. It also contains phytates, deemed by many nutritionists to be “anti-nutrients” since they can impede your body’s ability to absorb other nutrients. There is also a lot of speculation surrounding the consumption of too much soy, though there has yet to be a widespread consensus on this matter.
Taste: Soy milk has the right texture, but not quite the right taste. It tastes distinctly like … soybeans — and it doesn’t very closely resemble cow’s milk. Nevertheless, the taste isn’t exactly unpleasant. It can work in some recipes (or better yet, as part of a powerhouse protein shake). There are plenty of diehard soy milk fans, but, depending on your needs, your mileage may vary.
Oat Milk – Grade: C+
Health: Like quinoa, oat milk is made with grains, so it is cholesterol-free. On the downside, it is high in calories and quite high in sugar. Even unsweetened varieties have between 7g to 9g of sugar per cup. It lacks the vitamins and minerals of many other options as well.
Taste: As you’d expect, oat milk has a fairly sweet flavor. It tastes better than most alternatives and has a rich thickness that makes it absolutely perfect for smoothies. If the high sugar and caloric content don’t put you off, you can consider oat milk to be a great occasional treat.
Flax Milk – Grade: C
Health: Flax milk tends to be low in calories (tied with cashews at 25 calories per cup), but it requires added vitamins and minerals in order to for it to be nutritious. One major concern is that flax milk contains phytates, like soy milk. As such, consuming too much flax seed can cause nutritional issues, so drink it sparingly. However, it is a great choice for those with soy or nut allergies. If you are avoiding soy due to fears of increased estrogen, know that flax milk can also increase these levels due to the presence of phytoestrogens called lignans.
Taste: Flax milk generally tastes great, though some critics disagree. It has a creaminess and consistency that is very similar to traditional milk, though it doesn’t reach the same levels as cashew milk. It has a neutral flavor that goes well in savory dishes.
Macadamia Nut Milk – Grade: C-
Health: Macadamias aren’t exactly the healthiest nut. They are full of fat and are dense with calories. Accordingly, macadamia nut milk tends to be less healthy for you than most alternatives; it has twice as much fat as almond milk and 60 percent more calories. On the plus side, it has a high amount of palmitoleic acid, a rare omega-7 fat that can be difficult to get in a plant-based diet.
Taste: This option has a nutty flavor and a mellow creaminess not unlike cow’s milk. It works well when used in savory dishes. Some varieties (especially sweetened ones) can be a little rich, though the taste makes it undeniably one of the most appealing plant-based milk alternatives. One unpleasant aspect of macadamia nut milk, however, is that it can coat your mouth, which can feel pretty gross.
Pea Milk – Grade: C-
Health: Perhaps the oddest inclusion in this list, pea milk has only hit the market within recent years. A lot of hype surrounds a specific brand, with headlines like “This Pea-Based Milk Is Healthier Than Almond Milk, And Actually Tastes Almost Like Milk,” though nutritionists (and taste testers) disagree. It has the same amount of protein as soy milk, but it also similarly has a lot of calories. A lot of the claims surrounding its supposed nutrition benefits are due to the fact that it is heavily artificially enriched. Since a limited number of manufacturers make pea milk, this may be a bad choice for those looking to avoid enriched foods.
Taste: Sweetened pea milk tends to be pretty palatable, though unsweetened varieties seem to leave a strange residue in your mouth, as well as a seriously bitter aftertaste. If you opt for a flavored variety, they essentially taste like a smoothie — but with all the calories and sugar of one.
Coconut Milk – Grade: D
Health: Note the distinction between “coconut water” and “coconut milk.” While the former is produced by simply collecting the juice from coconuts, the latter is made by soaking the flesh (white part) of it in hot water. Coconut milk is naturally high in B vitamins and calcium, though it can also be high in calories and fat, depending on how thick the milk is. Many manufacturers add guar gum to it to make it more palatable, which is a controversial ingredient that can cause intestinal blockage and constipation in high amounts.
Taste: Coconut milk tends to be watery and tastes fairly thin, so it may not be appropriate for certain uses. To give you an idea of how the internet likes coconut milk, try typing “Coconut milk tastes like … “ into Google. The consensus? It tastes something like “water,” “soap,” and “vomit” (a strange combination … ). To be fair, fans of the stuff claim that they love the creaminess of certain brands, and it can be a great choice for those who simply love the taste of coconut (not me).
Rice Milk – Grade: D
Health: Rice milk offers little nutritional value without the addition of added vitamins and minerals. One serious concern with this beverage is its sugar content. Supposedly “healthy” beverages are often loaded with sugar, and rice milk falls into that category. Due to the high amount of starch in it, it is extremely high in sugar. Avoid drinking too much of this stuff in the morning; at 10g of sugar per cup (unsweetened!), too much could give you a serious crash. And, considering that diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., (along with a low-fat, vegan diet) it would be advisable to avoid sweetened versions entirely.
Taste: Rice milk has many loyalists, but most people who first try it complain that it is too bitter (unsweetened) or too sugary (sweetened). People also commonly complain that it is not creamy enough to simulate real milk, stating that it is “thin” or “watery.” Nevertheless, it has a strong enough fanbase to keep it on store shelves, and you could find yourself as a part of the club.
Keep in mind that the nutritional information for these products can vary wildly by brand. Be vigilant and read those nutrition labels! Tempted to try any of these plant-based alternatives? Disagree with the scores? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
The nutritional information and suggestions on this site are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. If you have questions, consult your doctor or nutritionist.
This is a guest post by Bob Hand, a blogger from Boise, Idaho. He studied at the University of South Carolina and keeps a pulse on current issues in animal rights and education. His hobbies include reading and collecting vinyl records. You can follow him on Twitter @bob_hand567.