How to Find the Best Milk Alternative for Your Nutrition Goals

Whether you're lactose intolerant or choose to steer clear of dairy for other reasons, you may be among the growing number of people turning to milk alternatives. Luckily, there's a seemingly endless variety to be found in your local grocery store.

While there's no one "best" milk alternative, there are some key nutritional differences among plant-based milks that you should know about. (Image: andresr/E+/GettyImages)

But of course, the sheer amount of options can also make it hard to know which one is right for you. Is almond better than cashew? What about rice and soy varieties?

While your taste preference plays a big role, there are some nutritional differences you should keep in mind, too, as you're filling your cart.

What Is a Milk Alternative, Anyway?

"A milk alternative is simply a substitute for milk, produced from a plant, nut or other substance and/or a milk product where lactose has been removed or denatured," Allison Baker, RD, LD, director of nutrition for Kroger, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Though many of these cartons bear the word "milk" on their labels, it's important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently looking closely at legislation to dictate whether or not this word choice is the right one, since technically speaking, a beverage can't be "milk" unless it comes from an animal. This means you may see "almond beverage" or "coconut beverage" on your local store shelves.

Regardless of what they're called, these blends can be a healthy addition to your diet, Baker says. Here's what to know about the perks and drawbacks of each of these milk masqueraders.

Almond Milk

Best for: Weight-watchers

Since almond milk has less than 40 calories per serving, it's a solid choice for those who are tracking what they eat and hoping to shed a few pounds, says Baker. It's also an ideal option for baking in place of regular milk, since it provides a subtle, nutty flavor.

Almond milk also packs vitamin A and other antioxidants, which help your body gobble up free radicals that cause inflammation, Heather Hammerstedt, MD, MPH, CEO of Wholist Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

On the other hand, almond-based beverages typically don't offer much fiber because they're mostly made of water, and they tend to be very processed in an effort to remove the skin of the almond. Sadly, Hammerstedt says, it's the outer part of the almond that packs the most nutritional goodness.

When buying almond milk, make sure to scope out the container's back label first, since many brands are guilty of adding lots of unnecessary sugar, according to Hammerstedt. Her recommendation? Opt for a plain or unsweetened variety, and spring for organic if you can. Or, better yet, try making your own at home, so you know exactly what's going into it.

Cashew Milk

Best for: Dairy-free cooking

Like almond milk, unsweetened cashew milk is a highly-nutritious beverage that offers a creamy and rich consistency, Serena Poon, celebrity chef and nutritionist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. And as with other plant-based milks, this blend has heart-healthy unsaturated fats and protein, and it's high in several vitamins and minerals, including iron and magnesium. Poon says this makes cashew milk great for controlling blood sugar, helpful for boosting heart health and good for improving eye and skin health as well as iron-deficiency anemia. Plus, with a creamy texture, cashew milk is versatile and can easily be substituted for dairy. Poon says it serves as an excellent base for ice cream, creamy sauces and vegan cheeses.

On the negative side, though, cashew milk can be pricey. And if you're weight-conscious, cashew milk might not be your best bet, either, since it's relatively calorie-dense.

Coconut Milk

Best for: Active individuals

Coconut milk is expressed from coconut meat, and it's undiluted form is a great ingredient to add creaminess to dishes like curries and soups.

As a beverage, though, you'll want to opt for the diluted version, which is the type you'll find by the half gallon in the refrigerated section of your supermarket. While this tropical-tasting beverage contains only about 45 to 75 calories, it is relatively higher in fat than other plant-based milks and typically has zero protein. In its natural state, it's also not a good source of calcium or vitamin D, although typical store brands tend to fortify it. But these same brands are likely to add sugars and other additives, too, such as carrageenan, so be sure to check the label and opt for less of these ingredients whenever possible.

Coconut milk is a good natural source of potassium and magnesium, two electrolytes that support hydration as well as your body's nerve and muscle functions.

Hemp Milk

Best for: Vegans, or others who don't eat fish

Made from hemp seeds, this nondairy alternative can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats promote heart health and normal brain function, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and many American diets lack them. Omega-3s are particularly important if you're vegan or vegetarian because fish is one of the leading sources of these fats.

While it's lower in protein compared to soy or cow's milk, hemp milk provides more iron. As with other milk alternatives, look for kinds that have been fortified with calcium and vitamin D and are unsweetened. For a breakfast, try preparing oatmeal — a good source of protein and fiber — with hemp milk.

Oat Milk

Best for: Fiber-seekers

Made of whole oats, this option is low in calories, high in essential B vitamins and a solid source of calcium and vitamins D and A, Philip Goglia, PhD, chief medical officer and co-founder of health technology company G-Plans, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Because it has a similar taste and consistency to regular milk, it's become a popular option for those looking for the latest-and-greatest non-dairy finds. One big advantage oat milk has over other options, like almond and rice, is its plentiful amount of fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol and keep you feeling fuller longer.

The downfall of the new kid on the block is that it's relatively high in sugar, calories and carbohydrates, says Audrey Perkins, MPH, a Boston-based nutrition consultant and the health and wellness strategy manager for Ocean Spray. And while it can be a good option for vegans or those with food allergies — such as nut, dairy or soy allergies — people with Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity should be cautious, because oats can be cross-contaminated with gluten.

Rice Milk

Best for: People with food allergies

For most people, the first type of milk alternative that comes to mind is almond or soy. However, for those who suffer from an allergy to nuts or soy, rice milk is a good option.

This low-fat beverage is the most hypoallergenic non-dairy milk, says Perkins. It's also typically enriched with calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D, to name a few. And for those who enjoy the taste of cow's milk but simply can't stomach it, Perkins says rice is your best bet for a substitute.

The bad news? Perkins says rice milk doesn't have a very good calorie-to-protein ratio. "It is very low in protein and high in calories as well as carbohydrates, with 23 grams per serving — 10 of which are sugar." Rice milk also contains high levels of inorganic arsenic, she says, which may cause potential health problems in those who consume rice as a main food source.

Soy Milk

Best for: Those who want more protein

One could argue that soy milk is the original alternative. After all, this soybean-derived beverage has been a mainstay in plenty of kitchens for decades — specifically, in Central and South American households. Goglia says it's a low-saturated-fat alternative to milk that contains both mono- and polyunsaturated fats, both of which work to decrease inflammation and lower cholesterol levels. One of it's star-quality features is its high concentration of protein, which is comparable to what you might find in a traditional glass of cow's milk. By far, it's also the most widely acceptable around the world, and typically the least expensive, according to Goglia.

But while soy milk does have an impressive amount of protein, it's technically an incomplete protein, says Goglia. In other words, you need to pair soy milk with another plant-based protein — like tofu or chickpeas — to reap the full nutritional benefits. And since soy is in the bean family, it's first and foremost a starch, which turns to sugar in your body.

Soy is also high in isoflavones, which can act like estrogen in the body, and some animal research has linked high doses of this compound to an increased risk of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that soy is safe for people to eat. Consuming a moderate amount, as in one to two servings a day, does not increase the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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