Non-Dairy Milk: A Guide to the Options

There’s been a lot of talk about milks these days. Cow’s milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk. You name it, they’re milking it. This presents a lot of options, and a lot of controversy over how to make the healthiest choice.

The meaning of “healthy” can be subjective. Dairy milk is at the top when it comes to natural protein, calcium and vitamin D. If I could drink organic cow’s milk without feeling sick, I most certainly would. But for me, and others who choose not to drink dairy milk due to allergies, upset stomach, veganism or anything else, there are excellent alternatives I am grateful to have.

Non-Dairy Milk: You’ve Got Options, and They’re Not All Bad

Each of the options have pros and cons, so it’s important to be fully aware of what you’re purchasing (as always). Soy milk is condemned for its GMO contents, and almond milk for its preservatives. Dairy milk has its problems as well, with growth hormone being given to cows. By staying informed and carefully reading labels you can avoid these issues. Once you learn about the options, pick the one (or two, or three) that’s best for you.

Soy Milk
High in protein and smooth tasting, soy milk was once the most popular non-dairy milk option. With 8 grams of protein, soy milk has as much as dairy, but it does lack calcium and vitamin D. They are also even in calories (about 130 per cup), though soy milk has less saturated fat. However, soy is now being approached cautiously due to speculation of possible negative effects of naturally occurring hormones. Soy is also notoriously associated with GMOs, with upwards of 94% of the soybeans in the United States genetically modified (yikes). However, GMOs are easily avoided by purchasing organic or non-GMO labeled soy milk.

Recommended Brand: Westsoy Organic Unsweetened

Almond Milk
Almond milk is increasingly popular and widely available. It is much lower in calories than dairy or soy, with about 40 per cup, and is high in vitamin D and E. Lately, it has being marketed as a healthier option than soy and dairy, causing a problem with negative associations (as seen in the recent clickbait titled article that was hard to miss although misleading and narrow-minded). Organic almond milk is certainly good for you, but with very little protein (1 gram), almond milk being “healthier” is a debatable claim. Almond milk often comes in a carton with a long shelf life, which is super convenient but usually means added preservatives. For this reason, label reading is extremely important for almond milk. Look for organic, unsweetened, and watch for potentially harmful additives, including carrageenan. Fresh, homemade almond milk is most delicious and guaranteed to be preservative-free.

Recommended Brands: Wegmans Organic Unsweetened, Whole Foods Organic Unsweetened

Coconut Milk
Coconut milk, sold in a can or carton, is tasty but has a distinct and noticeable coconut flavor. It is low in protein, but is a key substitute for people with nut or soy allergies. It has high saturated fat content, therefore is higher in calories. The coconut oil craze touts these fats as hugely beneficial, but the jury is still out on whether it is in fact harmful or helpful. Cartons present the same preservative concerns as almond milk, although I have yet to find one without carrageenan. Overall, be aware of additives and look for unsweetened and organic options.

Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is a neutral tasting allergen-free option. It is higher in omegas than other non-dairy milks, but also higher in fat and does not offer significant protein. Also sold in cartons, watch for added preservatives.

Rice Milk
Rice milk is another allergen-free option with a mildly sweet flavor. It is relatively high in sugar, making it best used to make desserts or a quick horchata rather than a daily milk alternative. Again, watch for additives in cartons.

With so many options, my solution has been to keep several dairy alternatives in the house at all times. I vary what I use based on my nutritional or taste preference, or what I am using the milk for. How do you decide?

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