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Plant-Based Milk: What to Consider When Choosing a Dairy Milk Alternative

16 min read

Dairy milk consumption is at an all-time low, and the market for nondairy milk is rapidly expanding, offering an unprecedented variety of options. So, if you want moo-free milk, what should you keep in mind? And, which milk alternatives are best, considering flavor, uses, and environmental impact?

When you think of a carton of dairy milk, you might envision happy cows grazing on green grass, thanks to Dairy Council commercials — or be reminded of those celebrity-laden “Got Milk?” ads from the 1990s. Both of these advertising campaigns were introduced to try to persuade more people to drink cow’s milk. But the fact of the matter is dairy milk consumption has been steadily declining since the 1940s. And as younger generations like Gen Z become increasingly concerned about the dairy industry’s impact on climate change, that’s likely to continue.

Needless to say, dairy has been a global staple for a long time. And cow’s milk, in particular, has been touted as “nature’s most perfect food.” Health organizations and the media tell us it’s crucial for strong bones and healthy kids. But is it?

Although a glass of cow’s milk does contain a large amount of calcium, it turns out that calcium isn’t the only essential nutrient for strong bones. And remarkably enough, dairy might actually be associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.

Sure, cow’s milk is nature’s most perfect food — for a baby cow. But baby cows have four stomachs and can double their birth weight in 56 days. Humans are a wee bit different. And as it turns out, human milk is different, too.

The truth is that humans are the only species on earth that drink milk after infancy. And we’re also the only ones drinking milk from another species. And it might not be what our bodies are designed to do, either. In fact, around 68% of people worldwide are lactose intolerant, with the highest percentages occurring in communities of color.

There are also significant ethical and environmental concerns with modern dairy — including the confinement and mistreatment of dairy cows, the resources the industry uses up, and the pollution it generates.

As a result, many people are realizing that dairy is not an especially healthy food — for people, animals, or the planet — and instead, they’re checking out vegan milk alternatives.

So, what types of plant milks are out there? What are the benefits and downsides of each? Can you make your own? And what else should you consider when choosing plant-based milk?

What Is Plant Milk?

Assortment of organic vegan non-dairy milk from nuts, pine nuts, oatmeal, rice, buckwheat, almonds, coconut in glasses on a gray background. Drink, healthcare, diet and nutrition concept. Copy space. Lebedeva

Nondairy milk comes from plants — like legumes, nuts, seeds, or grains — instead of cows. To make it, the food is typically mashed, ground up, or crushed, heated with water, and then strained to capture the leftover liquid or “milk” that’s released.

Some of the most popular plant-based milks are:

  • Soy milk
  • Almond milk
  • Oat milk
  • Hemp milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Rice milk
  • Flax milk
  • And, as funny as it sounds… Pea milk

Plant Milk Through Today

Although plant milk’s popularity is now at an all-time high, it’s not a modern invention.

In medieval Europe, almond milk was a widely accepted alternative to cow’s milk, especially during religiously mandated meat-free days. Middle Eastern and North African countries also used almond milk in cooking and beverages.

Soy milk has been consumed for thousands of years in China — often used in soups and as a warm breakfast drink.

And coconut milk also has many uses in Southeast Asian cuisine. Sol kadhi is a traditional summer drink made with coconut milk in Mumbai, India. Meanwhile, bajigur is a hot coconut milk beverage from the island of Java in Indonesia.

In the US, plant-based milk didn’t really catch on — except among vegans and vegetarians — until near the end of the 20th century.

And even when it has, it’s been met with opposition from the animal agriculture industry. For decades, an anti-soy movement raged on, meant to discredit the claimed health benefits of soy and soy milk. Misinformation spread about soy’s impact on breast cancer, the development of “man boobs,” and its alleged negative effects on thyroid and heart health.

In the last twenty-five years, as plant-based milk consumption has skyrocketed, the dairy industry has again gone on the offensive, seeking to ban the use of the word “milk” on the packages of nondairy beverages altogether.

They argue that it isn’t milk if it doesn’t come from a lactating animal. And it’s misleading to think “these products are comparable replacements for milk, when in fact most are nutritionally inferior,” says the International Dairy Foods Association president.

Yet despite attempts to eliminate milk alternatives, the FDA has allowed plant-based milk producers to keep “milk” in their names since they are distinctly different products. After all, almond milk doesn’t pretend to be cow’s milk, and consumers know and appreciate the difference.

And now, plant-based milks are common in nearly every grocery store and many coffee shops and restaurants. Plant-based cheeses and butters, as well as yogurt and probiotic drinks, are available as well. So why are so many consumers choosing plant milk over cow milk?

3 Benefits of Nondairy Milk

Two retirement person drinking fresh milk and fresh fruits for their good health by suggestion from their personal nutritionist.

1. It’s Cruelty-Free

As you might have guessed, plant milks come from plants, not animals, and they are vegan-friendly. No sentient being is harmed to make them, and no babies are taken from their mothers and turned into veal, either.

In contrast, industrialized dairy cows often lead miserable lives. Many never see a blade of grass. Most are impregnated yearly — and their babies are taken away from them almost at birth. And then, when their milk production wanes, at around four years old, they’re killed for their meat.

2. It’s Better for the Environment

The dairy industry has become something of an ecological disaster. Animal agriculture is responsible for using up 83% of total global agricultural land, yet produces only 18% of the world’s calories. It’s a leading driver behind the destruction of tropical rainforests. And cows are huge contributors to climate change. The methane they release is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

Dairy also uses a lot of water. Factoring in the amount needed to feed and raise cows, it takes 144 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk in the US. This is especially concerning since cattle for beef and dairy accounts for about ¼ of total agricultural water usage.

3. It’s Healthier

Advertising for dairy touts it as a great source of calcium, protein, and vitamin A. And it does have these and other nutrients. But milk and dairy also supply an abundance of artery-clogging saturated fat, as well as hormones and antibiotics that are linked to an increase in disease and antibiotic resistance. Dairy has also been strongly linked to an increased risk of liver cancer and breast cancer.

Plant milks don’t contain these problematic elements. And when you choose organic products, you avoid certain pesticides and GMOs, too.

Cow’s milk is often fortified with vitamin D, as are many plant milks. Some plant milks also naturally contain or are fortified with additional nutrients, too, such as calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. Soy and almond milk, in particular, are often fortified to match the nutrient content found in cow’s milk without the negative health effects of animal products.

11 Popular Dairy Milk Substitutes — And Considerations for Your Health

It’s wonderful that we have so many milk alternatives these days. And plant milks offer many benefits compared to cow’s milk! But there are a few things to watch out for, too.

Some plant-based milk brands use food additives like thickeners or stabilizers to ensure their milk keeps and isn’t overly watery. Then, they may add “natural flavors” and sugar.

Remember that not all products are created equal when choosing an alternative to dairy milk. As you shall soon see, things like the nutritional profile, ingredients, environmental impact, added sugars, and best uses differ significantly between milk varieties and brands.

A note: Though versatile, plant milks should never replace breast milk (or infant formula). These products are not designed to sustain a developing baby, and they should only be introduced after one year, along with solid foods. (Cow’s milk should also never be used as a replacement for breast milk or infant formula. The nutritional needs of human babies and cow babies are profoundly different.)

1. Soy Milk

Soybeans and soy milk

Starting with the USDA’s 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, soy milk is now included under the “dairy” designation and is the only plant-based milk that is. Because fortified soy milk has a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk, the USDA determined it qualifies as a nutritionally adequate dairy substitute.

Soy milk offers one of the biggest protein bangs for your buck, coming in at around 7–12 grams per cup. Some brands use highly processed soy protein isolate to achieve this, while others use whole soybeans. I prefer less processed foods, and favor brands made from nothing but water and whole organic beans, such as unsweetened Edensoy.

Soy milk is also often fortified with extra calcium (although soybeans do contain some naturally) as well as vitamins A, D, and B12. Regular consumption of whole soy products may contribute to a lowered risk of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, especially in comparison to regular milk. You can learn more about the facts and myths surrounding soy foods in our article Soy Facts: Is Soy Healthy or Harmful?

Soy milk is one of the most versatile plant milks and is great for baking, cooking, or drinking plain. It has an earthy, beany flavor that tastes very mild — like tofu.

Note: If you want to avoid glyphosate contamination or GMOs, make sure to go for organic or certified non-GMO soy products.

2. Almond Milk

Almond milk is lower in protein than soy milk or cow’s milk, but is also often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Almonds are naturally rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that’s good for your brain, blood, and skin. And many almond milk varieties contain unsaturated fats and potassium as well.

Some commercial almond milks are pretty watery, only containing around 2% almonds (they may disguise this fact by adding thickening agents), so I prefer making my own. And it’s great in smoothies! You can use almond milk similarly to dairy milk, although its lower fat content may change the texture of baked goods. Almond milk tastes nutty with a slight bitterness in unsweetened and unflavored varieties.

The biggest concern around almond milk is the amount of water it takes to grow almonds. And this is a real concern, especially because water-stressed California grows most of the world’s almonds. Making one gallon of almond milk takes about 84 gallons of water. That’s more than other varieties of plant milks — but still, that’s significantly less than it takes to produce cow’s milk. And almonds don’t emit methane, unlike cows, which are responsible for 45% of California’s methane emissions.

For more on almonds and sustainability, see our article, here.

3. Cashew Milk

Plant Based Cashew Milk – Homemade

Like almond milk, cashew milk is lower in protein than soy milk, but contains unsaturated fats that are good for your heart.  Many brands are also fortified with calcium, B12, vitamin A, and vitamin D. Cashews and cashew milk also contain anacardic acid, which may help with anxiety and the prevention of bacterial infections. Cashews’ lutein and zeaxanthin content can also benefit your eyes.

Cashew milk is nutty and creamy, but may be a bit bland on its own. However, it makes a great base for soups, sauces, and oatmeal. Cashew milk also works well in nice creams and as a yogurt.

Cashews use fewer resources than almonds and are grown in areas that are less stressed for water. However, there are some ethical considerations with cashews since their processing is done by hand. Workers are exposed to the natural oils in cashew shells, which can cause burning, blistering, and rashes. Also, some processing facilities use prisoners in forced labor camps or pay their workers very low wages. As a result, it’s best to buy fair-trade cashews (and cashew milk) whenever possible.

For more on cashews, read our article: Are Cashews Healthy, Ethical, or Sustainable?

4. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk in a carton is a watered-down beverage, different from the thick cream in cans used to make many Asian dishes. Nevertheless, it’s still higher in calories than many other plant milks, as it mostly contains saturated fat.

While the saturated fat in coconut milk is made up in part of medium-chain triglycerides (probably the healthiest form of saturated fat), in the absence of fiber, it may still negatively impact cardiovascular health, although opinions on the subject are still somewhat mixed.

Coconut milk contains very little, if any, protein but does contain potassium and is often fortified with calcium like other plant milks. As you might imagine, it has a tropical coconut flavor, but is milder as a beverage than in its canned form. Bottled coconut milk works mostly as a stand-alone beverage or in other beverages like tea and smoothies.

As for the environmental impact, coconuts can sequester carbon in soil, which is a very good thing. And they don’t require much water. However, coconut palm cultivation is a leading cause of deforestation in tropical and subtropical regions. And imports of coconut from tropical climes can mean a bigger carbon footprint for coconut milk brands.

To learn more about coconuts, check out our article: Is Coconut Good for You?

5. Hemp Milk

Hemp milk and fresh leaves on white marble table Chernetska

Hemp seeds naturally contain calcium, protein, and potassium in small amounts. They’re also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and essential amino acids — and they may help fight heart disease and inflammation.

However, commercial hemp milk may be highly processed. It is often combined with other milks, like oat milk, to help thicken it. Many commercial hemp milk varieties use natural flavors and food additives like gums or lecithins. And many also add sweeteners.

Hemp milk has a sweet, buttery, and nutty flavor on its own, and doesn’t fare so well in coffee. But it can be used in cooking and baking, over cereal, or in smoothies.

In terms of sustainability, hemp is fast-growing, resistant to many pests, and needs little water. And although it’s part of the same plant family as marijuana, hemp, and hemp products, don’t have psychoactive properties.

Read our article All About Hemp Seeds — A Nutritionally Dense Superfood to learn more about hemp.

6. Oat Milk

The market for oat milk is one of the fastest growing worldwide. It’s a popular vegan milk alternative used in coffee drinks and is offered as an allergen-free alternative to nut milks and soy milk.

Because oat milk is mostly carbohydrates, it’s relatively low in protein and, like other plant milks, may also contain added sugar. However, some of the fiber content of the oats is left in oat milk, which makes it stand out from other non-dairy options. Oats and oat products contain beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that benefits blood sugar and digestive and heart health.

Like other plant milks, oat milk is often fortified with vitamins and minerals, and it does contain a moderate amount of protein. Many oat milks also use oils to allow them to foam and enhance the texture.

Oat milk generally froths well and makes a nice latte. Although it has a sweeter taste, its creamy texture makes it work well in both sweet and savory dishes, including baked goods.

Oat milk sustainability depends on the brand. Oatly, the leading oat milk producer, prioritizes sustainability practices but has been under fire in the past because of a controversial $200 million investment from Blackstone. However, oats and other whole grains need significantly less water than livestock or even nuts like almonds.

For more on oats, read our in-depth article: Oats: Nutrition, Benefits, Downsides, & Uses.

7. Rice Milk

Rice milk in glass and bottle on wooden table

One of the original milk alternatives, rice milk is nonallergenic, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrients unless it’s enriched.

Rice also has a high glycemic index because it’s mostly simple carbohydrates. And, some brands of rice milk contain a lot of added sugar.

Rice milk is one of the thinner, more watery plant-based milks, so you may need to add a natural thickener like flour or a fat source if using it in recipes.

Rice and rice products are also at high risk for arsenic contamination, which can contribute to a host of potential health problems — especially for children and during pregnancy. Although some arsenic occurs naturally in soil, agriculture has compounded the issue by adding arsenic via pesticides and fertilizers. To learn more about this issue, see our article on Arsenic In Rice: How Concerned Should You Be?

Physician and founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine Dr. Michael Greger advises against using rice milk, opting for one of the other plant milks on this list.

8. Pea Milk

This one might sound strange but don’t worry, we’re talking about pod peas here — not urine. If you’ve had pea protein in shakes or smoothies, you’ll have some idea of what pea milk tastes like.

Pea milk contains a comparable amount of protein to soy milk, though isolated pea protein is used to create a non-pea flavor. It has a slight aftertaste, and some pea milks, like oat milk, have added oils. You can use pea milk similarly to dairy milk and soy, although it may not be as palatable in drinks like coffee or tea.

As a legume, peas are fairly eco-friendly, as they’re nitrogen fixers and use minimal water, especially compared to almonds, dairy, or soy.

You can read more about peas in our in-depth article: Are Peas Good for You? — What You Need to Know About Peas.

9. Flax Milk

Glass bottle and glass of yogurt with flax seeds, wooden spoon with flax seeds on grey background. Vafina

A less common option is flax milk, which is made by mixing omega-3-rich, cold-pressed flaxseed oil with water.

Flax milk is free from the top eight allergens for those who cannot consume lactose, soy, or nuts. And certainly, it is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. But the downside is that flax milk contains no protein and has poor flavor (so it’s usually sold with a lot of thickeners and natural flavors added). If you find a protein-rich variety, it’s likely because of the addition of pea protein.

Depending on what thickeners and flavorings have been added to it, flax milk can work decently for cereal, baking, or adding to your coffee and tea. But it’s really just flax oil, water, and added thickeners, flavorings, or proteins. I love flaxseeds, but the commercial flax milk offerings on the market so far haven’t impressed me.

Read more about flaxseeds’ health benefits in their whole food state in our article Are Flaxseeds Good for You? — And the Best Ways to Eat Them.

10. Pistachio Milk

New to the plant milk market, pistachio milk is considered a healthier alternative to oat milk since it doesn’t contain any added oils. Like other nut milks, it’s also fairly low in carbohydrates and has a decent amount of protein and healthy fats.

Pistachio milk also contains decent amounts of amino acids and is a good source of a number of polyphenols such as anthocyanins and flavonoids.

You can use pistachio milk similarly to almond or oat milk or 1:1 as a substitute for dairy milk in recipes.

In terms of sustainability, pistachios are considered a more desirable crop than almonds because they’re drought-resistant and have a longer yield period. According to Grist, pistachios may only need “between one-third and one-half as much water as almond trees.”

11. Macadamia Milk

Milk from macadamia nuts on a wooden surface

Macadamia milk is another newer, commercially available plant-based milk. It contains a small amount of protein but is mostly fat. Despite their fat content, macadamia nuts have been shown not to affect weight gain and actually lower cholesterol in studies.

While not many macadamia milk brands exist currently, those that do often contain thickening agents and may also have natural flavors or be mixed with pea protein. The best way to avoid any problematic ingredients is to make it yourself. Making macadamia milk at home will also ensure you have more nuts and less water in the final product.

Use macadamia milk in desserts, beverages, and baked goods. It tastes just like the raw nuts, so keep that in mind when adding it to recipes.

Macadamia nuts are considered among the most sustainable nuts in the world, and most are grown in Australia. The nuts are water efficient, sequester carbon, and no part of the plant is wasted.

3 Ingredients to Watch Out for When Choosing a Milk Substitute

Though some brands take a minimalistic approach, many commercial plant milk varieties may use certain undesirable ingredients. Below are some ingredients in nondairy milks you might want to avoid:

  • Sugar — Many plant milks contain added sugar, and it’s often the second listed ingredient (ingredients are listed in the order of most to least amounts in a product). To avoid upwards of six grams of sugar per cup, choose unsweetened plant-based milks.
  • Thickeners — Carrageenan is a thickener derived from red seaweed and added to foods and beverages to thicken them and prevent separation. Some studies have linked carrageenan to inflammation, gut irritation, and even cancer. Some plant milk brands have started removing this ingredient per consumer request, but many still use it.
    Other thickening agents like guar gum, xantham gum, and sunflower lecithin may be used instead. Although they’re considered safer alternatives, they may still cause digestive upset depending on the amount used. And I think of them a bit as “cheating,” since they can enable a manufacturer to fool consumers with the impression that we aren’t drinking mostly water.
  • GMOs — Most genetically engineered foods have been created by Monsanto (now Bayer) to withstand Roundup, a widely-used glyphosate-based herbicide they manufacture. Glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. And it’s not just used on GMO crops, like soy. It’s also increasingly being used as a desiccant on nonorganic oats, barley, and other cereals to dry the crop out before harvest. The good news is that foods grown organically are GMO- and glyphosate-free.
    Note: Choose certified organic plant milks to ensure you’re not getting a dose of unwanted chemicals or GMOs.

How to Make Nondairy Milk

Close-up of a female pouring freshly made oat milk in a glass. Woman serving healthy oat milk.

Instead of buying milk substitutes at the store, you can also make your own plant milk. It will probably contain far fewer ingredients than many store-bought varieties. And it can be free from additives like oil, thickeners, and natural flavors.

How do you make plant-based milks?

The process involves soaking, draining, blending with water (and flavorings or sweeteners), and straining out the solids through a cheesecloth or nut milk bag.

Homemade milks will stay fresh in the refrigerator for 3–4 days.

Check out the following video for help making almond milk:

You can also get a useful machine to make the process of DIYing plant-based milk even easier. The Almond Cow plant-based milk maker allows you to create milk from any nut, seed, or grain in minutes with easier cleanup and no nut milk bags required. The machine uses a cold blending process to protect the nutrients, so no heat is applied. You can check it out here (and use the code FOODREVOLUTION for a special discount).

Or, for the “Rolls-Royce” of soymilk makers (and no, this isn’t NEARLY as expensive as a real Rolls-Royce), check out ChefWave’s fully automated and self-cleaning soymilk maker, here.

Homemade Plant Milk Recipes

Switching from dairy milk to plant-based alternatives is far from dull. With countless options available, many of which can be whipped up in less than 5 minutes, they offer endless flavors, textures, and levels of creaminess. So, grab your favorite blender and pour up a chilled, creamy glass of plant-powered deliciousness!

1. DIY Cashew Milk

If you haven’t yet played around with making your own plant-based milk, cashews are a great choice for your first DIY experience. They are creamy and delicious and don’t require any straining, just a bit of blending. Add the cinnamon for flavor, or omit it if you plan to use this milk for savory recipes.

2. DIY Oat Milk

With just four ingredients and in only five minutes, you can whip up your own DIY Oat Milk right from the blender. This creamy delight is packed with fiber and natural sweetness, making it a perfect plant-based milk option for practically every recipe that calls for milk.

3. 2-Ingredient Pistachio Milk

2 Ingredient Pistachio Milk

This 2-ingredient Pistachio Milk is creamy, silky, and packed with goodness! With its unique flavor profile, pistachio milk adds a luxurious twist to smoothies, coffee, and baked goods, offering a sustainable, dairy-free choice that doesn’t skimp on taste or nutrition.

The Future of Milk Is Plants

The consumer marketplace is changing so fast that plants are replacing the fading dairy industry. The option to buy milk substitutes could save billions of animals, help save our planet, and also benefit your health.

All you need to do is pay attention to a few details when choosing the right milk for your household — or make your own — and you have a great alternative.

Cruelty-free, earth-friendly, and nutritious milk made with the help of Mother Nature herself? I can’t think of a better way to replace dairy.

Tell us in the comments:

  • What’s your favorite non-dairy milk, and how do you like to enjoy it?
  • Are there particular brands or types of plant milks that you’ve tried but haven’t liked?
  • Have you ever made your own plant milk at home?

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