Plant-based “milks” are taking up more and more space on grocery store shelves these days. Today, there are nearly a dozen different plants that are giving us their “milk.” You can find beverages made from soybeans, almonds, cashews, peas, oats, coconut, hemp, rice and even peanuts, sesame, hazelnuts, tiger nuts, quinoa and lupin (Sethi et al., 2016).
For some people, the appeal of these plant-based milks is simple: they’re allergic to cow’s milk, are lactose intolerant or are following a vegan or other diet that prohibits dairy. In 2020, these products accounted for 15 percent of the milk market, thanks to their $2.5 billion in sales (GFI, 2020). That growth has come quickly: the plant-based milk market has grown by 27 percent in just the past two years.
Recently, more people have been gravitating to these products because they’re perceived to be healthier. But are they? The answer depends on what nutrients you want to get from your milk, and whether your plant-based milk of choice can provide them.
How to milk an almond
Plant-based milks are made by breaking down plant material into tiny particles which, when suspended in water, creates a milky substance. In that regard plant-based milks aren’t really milk at all — they’re essentially just ultra-fine particles of almond, oat, soy, etc. and some regular old water. But because these two ingredients alone would yield a watery, grayish and rather bitter slurry, some additives such as sugar or salt, thickeners such as seaweed-derived carrageenan, colorants and vitamins and minerals are also typically added.
None of these ingredients is expensive. This might be one, more cynical, reason for plant-based milks’ popularity with sellers – the production cost is cheap, and provides healthier profit margins than dairy milk. These generous margins could be why plant-based milk producers have put so much effort into marketing their products.
Plant-based milks can often be used to substitute for dairy milk as a beverage as well as in cooking and baking. Still, anyone who regularly consumes plant-based milk will tell you that some varieties are better than others in different roles. For instance, some might prefer oat milk in a latte, but coconut milk as a foundation for desserts.
Got (dairy) milk?
Dairy milk — the kind from cows — contains a high concentration of a number of nutrients in one convenient, accessible package. It’s no surprise the beverage has been a staple of diets around the world for millennia. Milk is high in protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins, and most milks are also fortified with vitamins D and A. Milk also contains sugar in the form of lactose. Lactose is broken down in the body into more basic sugars that the body uses for energy storage (Romero-Velarde et al., 2019).
In 2016, researchers reviewed the recent evidence on whether milk and dairy products were healthy, and found that the majority of studies suggested they have a positive impact on health (Thorning et al., 2016). Consumption of dairy milk reduced risk of childhood obesity, improved weight loss during calorie restriction in adults, and reduced the risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. People who consumed dairy regularly were also less likely to get some kinds of cancer.
Dairy is good for the microbes that live inside our guts, too. One noteworthy study found that regular dairy consumption altered people’s gut microbiomes, making them more diverse. That microbial diversity, in turn, was associated with lower blood triglycerides and higher HDL cholesterol (Shuai et al., 2021).
Not all milks are equally nutritious
Some people assume that because a substance comes from a plant and not a cow it’s automatically healthier. But plant-based milks can contain a lot of added sugars while lacking many of the nutrients you’d get from regular dairy milk. Some are fortified with these missing nutrients, but not all. Check the nutrition label to make sure you’re actually getting all the nutrients you need. If something you were once getting from dairy is missing in your milk alternative, you might need to consider adding a supplement to your diet to make up for it, like one containing vitamin D3.
For instance, 1 cup of fortified whole-fat dairy milk comes with 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, 8g protein, 11g sugar (lactose) and 30 percent of your daily calcium. In the same serving of oat milk, you get 160 calories, 9g of fat, 3g protein, 7g of sugar (maltose from the oats) and 25% of your daily calcium. A common almond milk brand has 60 calories, 2.5g of fat, just 1g protein, 7g of sugar (added sucrose, in the form of cane sugar, to make it taste better) and no calcium.
A lot of your milk choice will depend on what nutrients you want to prioritize — or avoid. For example, someone focused on consuming more protein may want to stick with dairy milk, while someone restricting calories might opt for the lower-calorie almond milk option. Just remember that many plant-based milks have sugar added to them for taste, meaning you’ll need to choose unsweetened varieties to avoid these empty calories.
And as a rule, plant-based milks are highly processed. It takes a lot of work to transform an almond or an oat grain into something that resembles dairy milk. So if you’re prioritizing whole foods in your diet to promote better health, that’s another reason to stick to dairy.
Meanwhile, it’s important for people following other dietary guidelines to know what’s in different milks available. For example, people prone to kidney stones are advised to watch their consumption of sodium, potassium and oxalate. Almond and cashew milks may be the least healthy for these people, while coconut milk can be a great choice (Borin et al., 2021).
For children, substituting plant-based milks for dairy can significantly reduce protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals in their diets while increasing sodium and, sometimes, added sugars (Sousa and Kopf-Bolanz, 2017). More long-term research is needed to be sure what effects this kind of dietary shift can have on child development, so for now, experts urge caution. Other experts point out that soy is the closest, nutritionally, to dairy milk, and is for now appears to be the best option as a milk substitute for children (Schuster et al., 2018).
The Bottom Line
Plant-based milks are game-changers for people worldwide who have milk allergies, lactose intolerance and other dietary restrictions. But for those simply hoping to reach for the least-processed option with the most protein, calcium and other nutrients, regular dairy milk is likely the best bet.
For those who allergic to or can’t tolerate cow’s milk but seek more complete nutrition (or perhaps better taste) than plant milks, it’s worth careful experimentation with a couple of animal-based alternatives. Lactose-free dairy milk contains all of the nutrients of whole cow’s milk minus lactose, the milk sugar that some find difficult to digest. It’s typically made by adding lactase, the bodily enzyme that breaks down lactose, to animal milks. Another alternative is goat’s milk, which has smaller fat molecules and a different protein structure than cow’s milk, as well as slightly less lactose, which may make it a better choice for you (Turkmen, 2017). In short, there have never been more choices on the market, so decide on your priorities, experiment and drink up!
Borin, James F., et al. "Plant-Based Milk Alternatives and Risk Factors for Kidney Stones and Chronic Kidney Disease." Journal of Renal Nutrition (2021).
GFI. “U.S. retail market data for the plant-based industry.” (2020) Accessed Nov. 8, 2021 https://gfi.org/marketresearch/
Sethi, Swati, Sanjeev K. Tyagi, and Rahul K. Anurag. "Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review." Journal of food science and technology 53.9 (2016): 3408-3423.
Romero-Velarde, Enrique, et al. "The Importance of Lactose in the Human Diet: Outcomes of a Mexican Consensus Meeting." Nutrients 11.11 (2019): 2737.
Shuai, Menglei, et al. "Multi-omics analyses reveal relationships among dairy consumption, gut microbiota and cardiometabolic health." Ebiomedicine 66 (2021): 103284.
Schuster, Margaret J., et al. "Comparison of the Nutrient Content of Cow’s Milk and Nondairy Milk Alternatives: What’s the Difference?." Nutrition Today 53.4 (2018): 153-159.
Sousa, Angelica, and Katrin Annika Kopf. "Nutritional Implications of an Increasing Consumption of Non-Dairy Plant-Based Beverages Instead of Cow's Milk in Switzerland." Advances in Dairy Research 5.04 (2017): 1-7.
Thorning, Tanja Kongerslev, et al. "Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence." Food & nutrition research 60.1 (2016): 32527.
Turkmen, Nazli. “Chapter 35 - The Nutritional Value and Health Benefits of Goat Milk Components.” Nutrients in Dairy and their Implications on Health and Disease (2017): 441-449. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-809762-5.00035-8