Long gone are the days when a trip to the supermarket to buy a jug of milk was a simple as selecting between skim, low-fat, or whole. To meet increasing demands for non-dairy alternatives as our dietary preferences change, the options for dairy-free drinks lining store shelves have skyrocketed.
Things have come a long way since the days when your only option was coconut milk from a can or overly bean-tasting soy milk. Drinks made with everything from hazelnuts to oats to bananas are now among the boundless choices.
These milk alternatives can be suitable for people who are intolerant to dairy milk or have ethical or other personal dietary preferences. Reaching for a nut or other plant-based “milk” can be a fun way to try something new—whether it’s in a latte, overnight oats, or a post-run smoothie. With new brands frequently popping up in grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops, plant-based milks are here to stay.
“But don’t assume that all these drinks are all created equal,” Emily Edison, M.S., R.D., owner of Momentum Nutrition in Seattle, tells Runner’s World. “You need to look into the nutrition facts of different types before choosing the one you want.”
But since the assortment of these milk alternatives is so vast, deciding which one is best to float your pre-run cereal in or spike your coffee with can seem daunting. To help, we milked our nutrition expert for everything you need to know.
First Things First: Is Dairy Milk Unhealthy?
Despite getting beaten down of late, good old cow’s milk is still a good option for active people. It has protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, potassium, and B vitamins, so it covers a lot of your nutrition bases.
With the exception of full-fat coconut milk, milk alternatives are lower in saturated fat than dairy milk other than skim. Although milk does contain some saturated fats, more so if you choose 2 percent or whole milk, this does not seem to be overly problematic for heart health. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity suggests people who consistently drink dairy milk have a 14 percent lower risk of coronary disease, an 11 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. The other nutrients in dairy may help counteract any potential impacts that saturated fat has on health measures.
Of course, if you are lactose intolerant, meaning you lack enough of the enzyme lactase to properly break down this dairy sugar, you will need to limit or even eliminate regular milk from your diet if you experience diarrhea, bloating, gas, and other digestive issues after consumption. This is where lactose-free milk or non-dairy alternatives can help fill in the gap.
So, How Nutritious Are Plant-Based Milks?
When comparing cow’s milk to non-dairy options, it’s important to know what you are getting in the traditional option.
1 cup of 2 percent milk contains the following:
- 122 calories
- 8 g protein
- 4 g fat
- 12 g carbs
- 12 g sugar
- 0 g fiber
- 309 mg calcium
- 390 mg potassium
- 95 mg sodium
- 111 IU vitamin D
- 200 µg vitamin A
Not all plant-based milks compare nutritionally. The nutrition profile of each differs, so it’s important to read labels. It also helps to know how these milk alternatives are made: Nuts, seeds, grains, or legumes are generally soaked, blended with water, and then strained. After, other ingredients—including vitamins, sweeteners, oils, and thickeners—are often added.
When It Comes to Protein:
For starters, except for soy milk and pea milk, which have about 8 grams and 5 grams of protein in a cup, respectively, Edison cautions that plant-based milks are often lightweights in this particular macronutrient. Some—such as almond, rice, and coconut milk—barely have a single gram of protein, which is important for building and maintaining muscle.
“It can take several cups of many of the milks on the market to get the same amount of protein you get from a single glass of cow’s milk, which is best in class for protein,” Edison says.
There are a few options on the market now, such as Silk Protein Almond & Cashew, which are being beefed up with extra protein—10 grams in 1 cup—from sources such as soy protein isolate and pea protein.
The dearth of protein is not a big issue if you are just adding a splash of oat milk to your coffee, but it can be a concern if you are giving up dairy completely and not making up for the loss of quality protein elsewhere in your diet.
“I recommend adding high-quality proteins from eggs, chicken, fish, and other meats if you choose only non-dairy milks. If you are vegan, use protein combos like beans and rice, hummus and tofu, and other soy products,” Edison says.
When It Comes to Added Sugar:
Another concern is that plant-based milks can include a lot of added sugars. “Unless you buy those labeled ‘unsweetened,’ assume sugar will be added to all non-dairy milks,” Edison says. The words “vanilla,” “chocolate,” and even “original” on the carton are good tip-offs the drink has been sweetened.
A cup of chocolate almond milk can deliver up to 19 grams of added sugar. Dairy milk does contain sugar, but this is all naturally occurring in the form of lactose, which for people who are not sensitive to it, does not pose the same health risks as sugars that are added to foods and drinks. Drinks made from rice and oats will have a higher naturally occurring sugar content than those made from nuts like almonds and cashews.
While most people should be looking to lower their intake of added sugars from packaged foods and drinks, if you simply prefer the flavor of vanilla soy milk or chocolate cashew milk, Edison suggests a good time to use these sugars to your advantage is for the purpose of refueling after a hard run.
When It Comes to Vitamins and Minerals:
Keep an eye on the vitamin and mineral content of dairy-free milks, too, Edison advises. “Many of the non-dairy milks are now fortified with vitamins and minerals in an attempt to make them look more like cow’s milk,” she says. But not all brands add these in. So look for options enhanced with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12— the same nutrients you would get when drinking regular milk. Since dairy products, including milk, are a reliable source of calcium and vitamin D in many people’s diet, Edison explains that when you go plant-only, there is the risk of coming up short in these bone-benefiting nutrients if you don’t make sure to get them elsewhere, like from salmon, rainbow trout, eggs, fortified cereal, and raw white mushrooms exposed to UV light.
Consumers of milk-alternative drinks may also be at greater of risk iodine deficiency, according to the findings of a study in the British Journal of Nutrition. The researchers discovered that the majority of milk-alternative drinks did not have adequate levels of iodine, with concentration levels found to be around 2 percent of that found in cows’ milk. Iodine is required to make thyroid hormones and, thus, important for the functioning of this organ. If avoiding milk and dairy products, consumers need to ensure that they have iodine from other dietary sources, which include seafood, seaweed, and iodized salt.
You won’t get anywhere near the same levels of fiber, healthy fats, or vitamin E—which you need to absorb said healthy fats—from nut milks, either. Considering that a cup of cashews has roughly 787 calories that contain the previously mentioned nutrients, yet a cup of unsweetened cashew milk may have only 25 calories, it is clear the nutrition of the nuts has been watered down. And while a cup of unsweetened cashew milk only has around 25 calories, it’s important for athletes to get enough calories throughout their day to fuel their training, according to Edison, so a cup of cashew milk may not be enough to sustain your efforts.
We also need more data on any potential pitfalls of consuming high amounts of the stabilizers and thickeners, like carrageenan and gellan gum, added to many of these dairy-free drinks. If you have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, plant-based milk is, without question, an option for you. Just remember that plant milks can contain allergens like soy and nuts that some people need to be cognizant of.
The Bottom Line:
If you are thinking of making the switch from cow’s milk to plant-based ones, or just want to include one or two in your diet for the sake of variety, there is certainly nothing stopping you from doing so. Just be aware that most aren’t as nutrient-dense as you’d like, so you’ll need to find most of your nutrition elsewhere.