6 Plant-Based Milk Substitutes Reviewed
Milk is considered one of the most essential staple foods, and is an integral part of a balanced diet. Milk is a great source of vital nutrients, including calcium and protein. The U.S. comes second in milk production, generating over 100 million metric tons in 2021.
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But the trend in recent years has shown a huge market for milk alternatives. A trip to the dairy aisle in your grocery and you'll find so many milk substitutes. In fact, 2020 recorded the highest record consumption of these milk subs - 838 million kilograms in the U.S. Combine that with the declining consumption of animal milk, and it's clear that people are leaning towards milk substitutes than cow's milk.
Whether you are looking for cow's milk alternatives because of dietary preferences or health reasons, there are several milk substitutes available. But it can be confusing which one is the "healthiest" or which one is the best suited for your particular diet.
Here are six of the healthiest plant-based milk substitutes to include in your diet.
Oat milk is a relatively new plant-based milk introduced in the 1990s, but it has become one of the most popular milk substitutes recently. Among the pros in using oat milk include: it has a natural sweetness, and has soluble fiber unlike other milk substitutes. Soluble fiber helps regulate blood sugar and slows digestion to give the feeling of satiation longer. Oat milk, like soy, can be fortified to include essential nutrients like Riboflavin, Vitamins A and D, and more.
Oat milk has a creamy texture that is very similar to cow's milk. It's a preferred option for coffee and other recipes requiring the natural thickness of typical milk. However, do note that oat milk may contain gluten traces because most manufacturing plants that process oats also work with wheat products, which can result in cross-contamination.
- Calories: 120
- Protein: 3 g
- Carbs: 16 g
- Fiber: 2 g
- Fat: 5 g
- Calcium: 27% Daily Value
- Vitamin B12: 50% Daily Value
- Riboflavin: 46% Daily Value
Almond milk is another popular plant-based milk substitute for people who are lactose-intolerant, or choose not to drink animal-based milk.
Almond milk is a go-to because it is a good source of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), which can reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and support weight loss. It also has high vitamin E content, an important antioxidant that protects cells.
Of course, there are cons to using almond milk. One, while it's low in calories, it will also contain far less protein, fiber, and essential nutrients than other plant-based milk alternatives. Almond milk does not have enough nutrients to sustain your daily needs, so you have to get the necessary nutrients elsewhere. What's more, almond milk usually contains added sugar, so it's best to check closely to choose the unsweetened option.
On the sustainability aspect, there is also an issue. Almond farming requires large water consumption (e.g., about 6 times over the amount needed to grow oats).
- Calories: 41
- Protein: 1 g
- Carbs: 2 g
- Fat: 3 g
- Vitamin E: 50% Daily Value
Soy milk is considered the most balanced plant-based milk when it comes to nutritional content. Soy milk has been one of the foremost substitutes for cow's milk, as it has been around for over 4 decades. It's an excellent source of protein and is fortified to resemble the nutritional makeup of traditional cow's milk.
Soy milk is widely consumed because of the phytonutrient content called isoflavones, which has anti-carcinogenic properties for humans. While it’s arguably one of the most popular milk substitutes, many are off-put by the beany flavor that it adds to recipes that require milk. Another drawback to using soy milk is that it contains anti-nutrients, which are components that reduce the total nutrient intake in the body.
- Calories: 105
- Protein: 6 g
- Carbs: 12 g
- Fat: 4 g
- Vitamin B12: 34% Daily Value
- Calcium: 30% Daily Value
Coconut milk is another plant-based milk alternative that can accommodate animal milk and tree nut allergies. Coconut milk comes from the white flesh of a coconut. It is a low-carb, gluten-free option, but it has even less protein content than almond milk - essentially none - so it is not a good source of that at all. However, most brands fortify coconut milk to include other vitamins such as B12, D, and A.
Coconut milk is a bit higher in fat than other milk substitutes, but it's actually good fat in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that are linked to good cholesterol levels. If you want to keep consuming milk but want to keep cardiovascular health in check, coconut milk will be a good option.
- Calories: 46
- Protein: 8 g
- Carbs: 1 g
- Fat: 4 g
- Calcium: 25% Daily Value
Hemp milk is made from ground, soaked hemp seeds mixed with water. Even though it's from hemp, it does not contain the psychoactive component of Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp milk is a good plant-based alternative for people who are allergic to soy, nuts, and need a gluten-free dairy option.
Hemp milk is chosen by some because it is rich in iron, high in omega-3 fatty acids, and is low in calories. If you're looking for a milk alternative that can promote heart health, hemp milk is a good option.
The only disadvantage is that hemp milk is lower in calcium, while other dairy products are high in this nutrient. It's also more expensive, and has a beany flavor that may not be to everyone's liking. Most options will also have added sugars, labeled as evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, to name a few. So if sugar is an issue for you, you may want to check the label or choose another type of plant-based milk substitute.
- Calories: 60
- Protein: 3 g
- Carbs: 0 g
- Fat: 5 g
- Calcium: 20% Daily Value
- Magnesium: 15% Daily Value
- Iron: 10% Daily Value
Pea milk is another plant-based dairy option that’s packed with proteins and nutrients. This is derived not from the soft, green peas, but from the yellow split-pea variety.
The main advantage of pea milk over other alternatives like oat milk and almond milk is that it has a much higher protein content, making it a better option to boost satiety and build muscle. The calorie content is also lower than other substitutes, and it’s more allergy-friendly than soy or other plant-derived dairies.
But if you’re watching your sodium, keep in mind that this milk has 110mg per serving. Also, other milk substitutes are easier to find than pea milk. There aren’t many brands on the shelves supplying pea milk. Moreover, it’s a more expensive option than oat milk, soy milk, and almond milk.
- Calories: 70
- Protein: 8 g
- Fat: 4.5 g
- Sodium: 110 mg
- Carbohydrates: 0 g
- Sugar: 0 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Calcium: 35% Daily Value
Plant-Based Milk Substitute: Our Choice
For the Palanan team, our own personal concerns are sugar content, protein content, and of course, sustainability. With these 3 options in mind, the choice for us is Soy Milk. Pea Milk comes in close second, only because of its cost and it's not as readily available in grocery aisles.
Milk is and will always be a staple in the standard diet. The good thing is, you can now have many choices depending on your requirements for taste, nutritional content, and sustainability.
All plant-based milk substitutes offer benefits such as reducing cholesterol, boosting antioxidants in your diet and keeping you safe from an allergy or intolerance. But keep in mind that apart from soy milk, these plant-based options are lower in protein than cow's milk.
A good strategy might be to mix it up if you are not strictly vegan; try switching days between animal-based dairy products (such as yogurt) with almond/ hemp seed lactose-free milks. That way, you have variety in your diet, and you can still get the necessary vitamins and nutrients from your dairy.