Ditch Dairy: Which Plant Milk Can You Benefit From?
Anja Grommons, MA, RDN
Anja Grommons is a vegan registered dietitian and nutrition coach who empowers plant-based eaters through virtual nutrition coaching. Anja holds a graduate degree from Western Michigan University where she now teaches future dietitians and nutrition professionals.
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- In recent years, non-dairy milks have become increasingly popular, but each non-dairy milk offers a different flavor profile and nutritional breakdown. Choosing a plant-based milk is personal and depends on your needs when reviewing the ingredients, calories, protein, and micronutrient content.
- Our first Ditch Dairy installment provides an overview of the most popular plant-milk options by briefly covering the features and potential benefits of each.
Thinking of making the switch to a non dairy milk but not sure where to start? You're not alone. Thus far in 2020, over 41% of all U.S. households report purchasing plant-based milk varieties (1). These 53 million households have made the swap for health reasons, ethical concerns, and/or environmental rationale (1,2). With increased consumer demand comes increased variety—so there are several plant milks to choose(3). These non dairy milks are derived from nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and other plant-based ingredients. Each milk offers a different flavor profile and nutritional breakdown. And like all great debates in nutrition, there is no one-size-fits-all approach—choosing a milk depends on your nutrition needs and goals.
When choosing a non dairy milk, consider the purpose of the beverage in your diet. If you are using this milk as a protein source, opt for one with at least 7-8 grams of protein per serving. If you are trying to keep added sugar low, think about how each milk contributes to the American Heart Association standards: 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams for men (4). If your diet is rich in added sugar from granola, yogurts, and desserts, opt for an unsweetened variety, but if milk is your sweet treat of choice, go for the flavored and sweetened varieties. Added sugar can be found on the updated nutrition facts label. Lastly, be sure to decide if your milk will serve as a good source of micronutrients in your diet. Some non-dairy milks are fortified with Calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12--all nutrients that require special attention while following a plant-forward or vegan diet. While many milks are fortified, they often do not meet 100% of your needs and bioavailability may be questionable (5). If you are concerned about the adequacy of your micronutrient intake, specifically vitamins D, B12, calcium, iron, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids, consider a once daily supplement like VERB vitamins.
This legume-based milk offers a nutrition profile most similar to cow’s milk, making it a good choice for plant-based children and those looking to add protein to their diet (6). On average, soy milk contains about 90 calories and 6-8 grams of protein (1). Soy milk is often fortified with bioavailable calcium along with vitamins B12 and D (7). This milk may not be appropriate for those with a cow’s milk allergy history, however, as consumers may experience a cross reaction to the soy protein. In recent years, soy has faced claims related to its estrogen content. While soy isoflavones are classified as pseudo estrogens, they seem to offer us a protective effect in regards to breast cancer in addition to other chronic conditions (8,9).
Pea milk is another protein-rich plant milk derived from a legume. At 115 calories and 8 grams of fiber, pea milk is a good option for children and those looking to build muscle (1). Pea milk also supplies energizing carbohydrates and is often fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B12. Peas are relatively low in allergy potential and can be a great addition to a varied diet.
This nut milk provides 25-80 calories and 0-1 grams protein (1). While many nuts are rich in protein on their own, when processed into plant milks, they lose their protein rich qualities. Cashew milks are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which protect bone integrity. These milks also pack a rich, creamy mouthfeel while remaining relatively low in calories.
Coconut milk offers up a sweet, floral flavor. It provides anywhere from 45-90 calories and 0-1 grams of protein (1). Coconuts contain medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which provide easily digested energy and may be beneficial for weight management efforts (12). While MCTs are beneficial, coconut products are also rich in saturated fat. Although the benefit vs harm controversy continues, the current dietary recommendations for Americans encourage keeping saturated fat to less than 10% of the total calories consumed. Coconut milks are sometimes fortified with small amounts of vitamin D, B12, and calcium.
Almond milk is one of more popular plant milks among consumers (10). This nut milk can be a low calorie choice as varieties supply anywhere from 30-100 calories and 1-5 grams of protein (1). Consumers may opt for high protein nut milks which include a blend of almonds with other nuts. These provide about 10 grams of protein per serving (11). Almonds are rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and these milks are often fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
Hemp milk supplies 70-170 calories and 2-4 grams of protein (3). It contains omega 3 fatty acids and is often fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B12. While hemp milk is derived from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, hemp-based food products contain minuscule amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound in the plant, and is void of the psychoactive effects (14).
Oat milk is one of the more sustainable plant-based milks on the market (15). At around 130 calories and 4 grams protein, this creamy grain milk is fortified with vitamin D, calcium, and B12 (1). Vitamin B12 assists in building DNA and regulates blood and nerve cells. Some varieties of oat and pea milk blends pack even more protein making it a good option for diets lower in the macronutrient (16). While oats are naturally gluten-free, some share machinery with their gluten-containing counterparts. If avoiding gluten, be sure to opt for a certified gluten free oat milk.
Flax milk weighs in around 55 calories (1). While flax milk is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, an anti inflammatory nutrient that vegans may need to be mindful of, the milk should not be utilized as a protein source as it is generally low in protein (1). When combined with pea milk, flax milk blends pack a higher amino acid content and therefore serve as a good source of protein. The seed milk is often fortified and may be used for those with nut allergies.
This nut milk is great for coffee creations and baking as it provides a rich, creamy mouthfeel. On average, macadamia milk contains 70 calories and 1 gram of protein. Macadamias themselves are rich in both saturated fat and heart healthy unsaturated fats. However, macadamia milk is generally unfortified and should not serve as a good source of essential nutrients.
Weighing in at 110 calories and 1 gram of protein (1), rice milk offers a light, naturally-sweet flavor profile. In general, rice and rice milk provides energizing carbohydrates and little else. Rice milk is not often fortified and therefore should not be used as a good source for vitamin D, B12, or calcium.
Each plant milk offers a very different flavor and nutrient profile. It is important for consumers to get curious with the nutrition facts label on the package and think about how the milk will fit into their diet. While choosing a nondairy milk to sip on is a very personal choice, consider rotating between a variety of milks to reap all benefits. Be sure to pair these plant milks with a varied diet and essential supplements when needed for maximum nutritional benefit.
4. American Heart Association http://heart.org