Here's a rundown of the nutrient profiles and differences between soy, almond, oat, coconut, and regular milk to help you understand which one is best for you.
Gone are the days when milk was synonymous with that nutrient-rich liquid from mammals. Today, a simple trip to the grocery store shows you that milk can also derive from plants. In fact, due to medical issues like lactose intolerance and milk allergy, demand for these milk alternatives has been on the rise in recent years. But, which of these milk alternatives is nutritionally best for you?
For a non-dairy alternative to regular milk, soy milk is the closest you can get in terms of the nutrient profile. This plant-based beverage contains proteins and nine essential amino acids, and it has a good balance of fats and carbohydrates.
In addition, soy milk is rich in isoflavones. These compounds are phytoestrogen plant chemicals that mimic estrogen in the human body. Thus, soy milk is especially beneficial for women experiencing premenopausal or postmenopausal symptoms.
One major downside to drinking soy milk is that soy is a common allergen. In fact, approximately 15% of infants who are allergic to cow’s milk are also allergic to soy milk. So, if you have a food allergy, you should ask your doctor if soy milk is a good option.
Almond milk is the strained liquid you get from blending almond butter, almonds, and water. Straining the solid almond pulp leaves behind a smooth, homogeneous beverage.
This non-dairy milk has been making a splash recently with its low protein, low carb, and low-calorie profile. While a glass of cow's milk contains about 136 calories, 7.3g protein, 7.37g fats, and 10.25g carbohydrates, a serving of almond milk contains around 40 calories, 1.51g protein, 3.58g fats, and 1.4g carbohydrates. Almond milk is one of the better options on the market if you’re looking for a nutritious, vegan, and lactose-free alternative to cow’s milk that can help with weight management.
Almond milk is also a good source of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. A glass of this beverage contains 22% of the recommended daily requirement. Plus, most brands of almond milk are fortified with essential nutrients like potassium, calcium, and vitamins A and D.
Oat milk has become a popular beverage for people with food allergies and dietary restrictions. It’s naturally free of common allergens like soy and nuts and doesn’t contain lactose or gluten (if the milk is made from gluten-free oats), making oat milk safe if you have these intolerances.
This non-dairy milk is made by blending 3 cups of water and 1 cup of oats, then straining the mixture over some cheesecloth to remove the solid oats. You can store oat milk in the fridge for up to five days.
Oat milk contains more calories, fiber, and carbohydrates than almond or skim milk. It’s also a rich source of vitamin B12, containing up to 50% of the daily value. Most oat milk brands in your local stores are enriched with essential nutrients like potassium, calcium, and vitamins A, B, and D.
A common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines, coconut milk is the strained liquid from pureed coconut flesh mixed with water. Don't confuse coconut milk with coconut water, which comes from green, young coconuts.
Of all plant-based milk options, coconut milk has the most calories (and most come from fats). That’s why coconut milk is a hit with those on the keto diet: It’s low in carbs and is a rich source of medium-chained triglycerides (MCTs) like lauric, capric, and caprylic acid. Unlike long-chained triglycerides (LCTs), MCTs are easily digested and go directly to the liver, where they’re used immediately for energy production. Compared to LCTs, MCTs are less likely to be stored as fats in the human body.
A cup (240 grams) of coconut milk contains 552 calories, 5.5g protein, 57.1g fats, and 13.3g carbohydrates. This plant-based milk is also a good source of other nutrients like manganese, copper, selenium, magnesium, iron, folate, vitamin C, and calcium.
A comparison of different kinds of milk wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the milk most people grew up with — cow’s milk. This nutrient-dense beverage has been a universally used substitute for breastmilk and is even the beverage adults guzzle to start the day. Plus, various everyday products like cheese, cream, butter, and yogurt come from milk.
Milk is a fixture in our diet because it has almost all the nutrients the human body needs. Aside from being a rich source of macronutrients, milk is also a good source of micronutrients like calcium, vitamins B12 and D, phosphorus, and riboflavin.
As nutritious as milk is, it can lead to adverse effects and prompt people to switch to other milk alternatives. Two of the most common issues are lactose intolerance and milk allergies. An estimated 75% of the world’s population loses the ability to digest lactose (milk sugar) after childhood. Milk allergies, however, are a problem that primarily besets children. Some children may experience allergic reactions to whey proteins or other substances like caseins commonly found in cow’s milk.
Picking the Milk That Works for You
Whether you wish to start a vegan diet or you suffer from milk allergy or lactose intolerance, any of these plant-based beverages could be the best alternative.
However, knowing that these alternatives are not the exact nutritional substitute for dairy milk is crucial. Check the labels carefully and see if you might be missing out on some essential nutrients. If you are, you can compensate for the nutritional gap with healthy food choices or supplements if your doctor recommends them.