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Sip or Skip: Non-Dairy Milk Explained

Infographic comparing nutritional values of different plant-based milk drinks

Remember when people heard the word “milk,” and everyone thought of the same thing? Well, if you’ve been in the dairy aisle at the grocery store anytime in the past few years, you know those days are over. Cow’s milk is obviously still an option, but it’s surrounded by countless other varieties made from nuts, seeds, grains and even peas!

Why Cow’s Milk Has Some Competition

Wondering why ol’ Bessie is getting left behind? Medical and lifestyle factors are driving the non-dairy milk trend. Some reasons people switch to plant-based milk include:

  • Being lactose intolerant or having other food sensitivities/allergies
  • Focusing on increasing certain vitamins or nutrients
  • Reducing calories, fat or sugar
  • Following a vegan diet
  • Being concerned about ingesting hormones from the cows
  • Not liking the taste of cow’s milk

Should You Make the Switch?

If you have medical issues, like lactose intolerance, that make it impossible for you to drink cow’s milk, then non-dairy alternatives are a given. But what about the rest of us? Is it really worth giving up our favorite childhood drink?

The answer to that is: There’s no clear-cut winner. It’s all about what you prefer to focus on. Cow’s milk and each non-dairy alternative offer something different. The old favorite — cow’s milk — contains calcium, protein, potassium, vitamin B and more, but plant-based options tout some pretty great health benefits too. Want the most calcium? Soy milk is your best bet. Want fewer calories? Go with almond milk. Bottom line: Choose the milk that best matches up with what’s important to you.

What to Look for In a Non-Dairy Milk Alternative

Just like cow’s milk, you can find non-dairy milks in different flavors. But remember, those yummy flavors are accomplished with sugar or other sweeteners — which of course, also add calories. The healthiest choices are unsweetened, pasteurized organic products that don’t contain loads of sugar, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), or carrageenan (an additive that may carry health risks).

Non-Dairy Milk Cheat Sheet

Here’s a glance at some of the most popular unsweetened non-dairy milks.

Icon of Almond

1. Almond Milk

Almond milk has about half the calories of skim milk and no sugar. It’s low in protein, but high in vitamins and nutrients. Almond milk has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and a thin, smooth texture.


Icon of Cashew

2. Cashew Milk

Cashew milk contains about half the calories and sugar of skim milk, but has very little protein. It’s thick and creamy, without much fat and has less flavor than some other options.


Icon of Coconut3. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is slightly lower in calories and sugar, but higher in fat and contains significantly less protein than skim milk. It’s thick and creamy, with a light coconut flavor. *Be sure to choose a coconut milk beverage and not the coconut milk for baking that comes in a can.


Icon of flax seeds4. Flax Milk

Flax milk has half the calories and sugar of skim milk. While it has virtually no protein, it does offer a hefty amount of Omega-3s. Its consistency is thin and smooth.


Icon of hemp leaf5. Hemp Milk

Hemp milk contains similar amounts of calories, sugars and proteins to skim milk. It offers ample Omega-3s and Omega-6s. It’s thick and creamy, with a strong taste. Hemp milk is a safe option for people who are allergic to nuts or dairy.


Icon of oats6. Oat Milk

Oat milk is made with presoaked oats. Its health benefits are comparable to skim milk, and it has a mild, slightly sweet flavor.


Icon of peas in a pod7. Pea Milk

Pea milk is the newest non-dairy milk on shelves. It’s made from yellow peas, is a good source of protein, offers two times the calcium of skim milk, and has no sugar. It also contains vitamin D, iron and Omega-3s and is completely free of dairy, soy and nuts.


Icon of quinoa pieces8. Quinoa Milk

Quinoa milk is gluten-free milk made from a grain. It’s low in calories and high in protein, fiber and nutrients — including magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, zinc and phosphorus.


Icon of rice pieces9. Rice Milk

Health benefits of rice milk are comparable to those of skim milk, except it’s much lower in protein. It’s thin, with a slightly sweet taste and is safe for people with dairy or nut allergies.


Icon of soy beans in pod10. Soy Milk

Nutritionally, soy milk is comparable to cow’s milk. It’s got a nutty and slightly sweet taste.


Icon of sesame seeds

11. Sesame Milk

Sesame milk offers abundant amounts of calcium, zinc, copper, magnesium and B vitamins. It has a bitter taste and may need to be sweetened.


Icon of bottle and cup with kefir in them

12. Kefir

Kefir is not actually dairy-free, but you’ll see it in the milk aisle so it seems worth mentioning. It’s fortified, fermented cow’s or goat’s milk that contains an ample of amount of probiotics, which promote gut health.


Looking to improve your nutrition? Contact a dietitian at the McConnell Heart Health Center, we’re ready to support you!