Guide to Nondairy Milk Alternatives

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Milk alternatives have recently made the move to the mainstream, taking up valuable shelf space in retailers ranging from Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods. Lactose intolerance, milk allergies, vegan diets, or simply preference — many reasons have contributed to a growing demand for nondairy milk products. Retail sales of dairy alternatives made from almonds, rice, and coconut milk in the U.S. are now nearing $1.4 billion, and expected to reach $1.7 billion by 2016.

Whether you’re in the alternative milk camp out of necessity or by choice, this guide can help you navigate the range of products that will best suit your tastes and preferences.

What to Look For

It’s important to read labels and to consider your health goals before selecting a nondairy milk. Some are higher in fat and carbohydrates than others, and some are sweetened with added sugars or sweeteners, increasing the calorie content. Other nutritional considerations might include protein and calcium content, or the addition (or absence) of preservatives and chemicals. Many alternative milk products have been fortified with the vitamins and nutrients found in cow’s milk, including calcium and vitamins D and B12, and some offer other nutrients like iron.

Here’s a look at seven of the most popular types of nondairy beverages.

1. Soy Milk

Soy milk is made by soaking soybeans and grinding them in water. It’s rich in protein and calcium, and can be low in calories when it doesn’t include added sweeteners. Soy milk is a little thicker than cow’s milk, which can make it a good option for smoothies.

Nutrition Facts
Per serving (1 cup unsweetened soymilk):
Calories: 80
Fat: 4 grams (1 gram saturated)
Carbohydrates: 4 grams
Protein: 7 grams
Calcium: 30% daily value (DV)

2. Almond Milk

Almond milk is made by crushing almonds, steeping them in water, then straining and pressing them to extract their liquid. You can make almond milk at home by soaking almonds overnight, blending them with water, and straining the liquid. Almond milk is lower in calories than cow’s milk, and high in vitamin E, but it’s lower in protein and other minerals like potassium than cow’s milk or soy milk. It can be a good choice for adding to cereal or baking recipes because of its nutty flavor.

Nutrition Facts
Per serving (1 cup unsweetened almond milk):
Calories: 30
Fat: 3 grams (0 grams saturated)
Carbohydrates: 2 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Calcium: 45% DV

3. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is the liquid derived from the meat of mature coconuts, and many people find the tropical taste appealing. But buyer beware: Canned coconut milk is vastly different from the coconut milk beverages sold in cartons. One cup of canned coconut milk contains 445 calories, 48 grams of fat, and has more saturated fat than the American Heart Association recommends for the entire day!

Although any type of coconut milk (even the lower-calorie beverages) is higher in fat than other milks, it contains medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which may be metabolized differently than the long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) found in meat and dairy. Some studies have claimed MCFAs are helpful in preventing weight gain, but experts say more research is necessary.

Nutrition Facts
Per serving (1 cup unsweetened coconut milk):
Calories: 45
Fat: 4.5 grams (4 grams saturated)
Carbohydrates: 2 grams
Protein: 0 grams
Calcium: 10% DV

4. Rice Milk

Rice milk is made from a mixture of partially milled rice and water. It’s the least likely of all milk products to trigger allergies, and has no saturated fat, but it also has more carbohydrates than regular milk and almost no protein. Unlike some alternative milks like certain nut milks and soy milks, rice milk has a smooth texture and doesn’t separate when mixed with other ingredients, making it a go-to option for coffee and soups.

Nutrition Facts
Per serving (1 cup enriched unsweetened rice milk):
Calories: 70
Fat: 2.5 grams (0 grams saturated)
Carbohydrates: 11 grams
Protein: 0 grams
Calcium: 25% DV

5. Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds that are soaked and ground into water and then strained. Though the seeds are from the Cannabis sativa L plant, the seeds don’t contain any THC, which is the psychoactive component in marijuana (which comes from the same plant). The milk is slightly thicker than other alternative milks, and the flavor is slightly nutty. It’s high in the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which may help keep cholesterol down.

Nutrition Facts
Per serving (1 cup unsweetened hemp milk):
Calories: 70
Fat: 6 grams (0.5 grams saturated)
Carbohydrates: 1 gram
Protein: 2 grams
Calcium: 30% DV

6. Flax Milk

Flax milk is made from cold-pressed flax oil mixed with filtered water. It’s very low in calories, but doesn’t offer any protein (although enriched varieties may). Flax is another rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as estrogen-like plant compounds called lignans, which have disease-preventing properties similar to antioxidants.

Nutrition Facts
Per serving (1 cup flax milk):
Calories: 25
Fat: 2.5 grams (0 grams unsaturated)
Carbohydrates: 1 gram
Protein: 0 grams
Calcium: 30% DV

7. Grain Milks

Grain milks can be made from oats, spelt, rice, rye, einkorn wheat, or quinoa. These have less protein and more carbohydrates than cow’s milk, but they can be low in saturated fat and enriched like other alternative milks. Grain milk can also be made at home by soaking grains, blending with water, and straining. Oat milk in particular has a mild, sweet taste that works well over cereal or in recipes, but be aware that it contains more calories and carbohydrates per cup than some other alternative milks.

Nutrition Facts

Per serving (1 cup unsweetened oat milk):
Calories: 130
Fat: 2.5 grams (0 grams saturated)
Carbohydrates: 24 grams
Protein: 4 grams
Calcium: 35% DV

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.