The non-dairy milk category has moved beyond its 15 minutes of fame; we’re on 7 years and growing. Since 2012, non-dairy milk sales have increased by 61 percent and of the various options — almond, oat, soy, pea, cashew, coconut, banana and the like — almond milk is king, owning 64 percent of the market share. So is replacing cow’s milk with almond milk healthy? Here are the pros and cons of drinking almond milk.
The Pros of Almond Milk
Fortified almond milk contains as much vitamin A and vitamin D as regular cow’s milk, and in some cases, more calcium. It also offers other vitamins and minerals, including potassium, iron, manganese, magnesium, copper, and phosphorus. In fact, a glass of almond milk provides 50 percent of your daily needs of vitamin E.
Almond milk is naturally low in saturated fat and has no dietary cholesterol, and unsweetened almond milk contributes fewer calories to your diet than cow’s milk. An 8-ounce serving of unsweetened almond milk starts around 30 calories, while a similar serving of skim milk has 80 calories.
Additionally, 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant making almond milk a safe and delicious alternative to dairy. Others turn to plant-based milk options like almond milk because of an ethical aversion to consuming animal products.
Almond Milk vs. Cow’s Milk and Other ‘Milk’ Alternatives
Cow’s milk is available as non-fat (skim), low-fat, reduced-fat and whole milk. A cup of skim milk has 8 grams of protein, 80 calories and 0 grams of saturated fat, while whole milk has 8 grams of protein, 150 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat. Full-fat milk is thicker in texture due to the higher fat content.
One of the reasons people opt for dairy alternatives like almond milk is because they’re lactose intolerant. Lactose is a sugar naturally found in cow’s milk and some people lack the enzyme they need to break it down to digest it properly.
Soy milk, the first dairy-free milk offered to U.S. consumers, remains a fan-favorite. However, fear of soy causing “estrogen-like activities,” has caused some consumers to look for other non-dairy alternatives.
A cup of unsweetened soy milk is similar to cow’s milk in that it provides about 80 calories but only has 0.5 grams of saturated fat. The upside to this non-dairy milk is that it has 7 grams of protein per cup.
Cashew milk is similar to almond milk in that it’s low in calories and fat. A cup of unsweetened cashew milk has just 25 calories, 0 grams of saturated fat and less than one gram of protein. Some brands even have 50 percent more calcium than is found in cow’s milk. It’s also rich in vitamins E and D and is a good source of vitamin A.
Oat milk is unique from other non-dairy milk options because it’s higher in calories and protein providing 130 calories and 4 grams of protein per cup. If you have a gluten sensitivity or allergy, you’ll want to read the label. While oats are naturally gluten-free, they can be contaminated with gluten during the growing or processing phase.
Oat milk is also higher in fiber than all other types of milk with 2 grams per cup and is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Pea Protein Milk
Pea protein gives cow's milk a run for its money when it comes to protein offerings. While most types of non-dairy milk come up short on this macronutrient, pea protein has 8 grams of protein, equivalent to cow’s milk.
Some major brands also have omega-3s, are an excellent source of vitamin D, and have 50 percent more calcium than cow’s milk. A cup of pea protein milk has about 70 calories and less than 1 gram of saturated fat.
Yes, banana milk is a thing—it’s a newer thing. Currently, Mooala is the only major brand available in the U.S. and it's made by combining pureed bananas and roasted sunflower seeds, to make a smooth and creamy texture. A cup of Mooala banana milk has 60 calories, 0 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of fiber, and 1 gram of protein.
In 2019, the brand will be fortifying the beverage with calcium and potassium. Banana milk is a great option for anyone allergic to dairy and/or nuts.
In this case, we’re not talking about 100 percent coconut milk, which is often found in an aluminum can, but the coconut milk beverage you typically find in a carton alongside other types of non-dairy milk. To make, the coconut pulp is pressed, which results in a cream and is then blended with filtered water, vitamins, and minerals.
A cup of unsweetened coconut milk beverage has 70 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 0 grams of protein. Coconut milk is also fortified with calcium, and vitamins A and D. It’s also an excellent source of vitamins B12 and vitamin E.
The Cons to Drinking Almond Milk
There are potential cons to drinking almond milk. First, the protein content is vastly less than that of cow’s milk. If getting enough protein is a concern, this is something to keep in mind. If you’re unable to drink dairy and are concerned about protein, non-dairy milk made with soy or pea protein would serve as a good option.
Another potential con with almond milk (and other types of non-dairy milk) is that there are varieties with added sugars. This is a simple one to address—just look for “unsweetened” or read the nutrition facts panel and look for added sugars.
Additionally, cow’s milk is a natural source of calcium but almond milk must be fortified. Always read the nutrition facts panel on the side to confirm it’s been fortified with this mineral. Almond milk is also fortified with vitamin D.
How to Shop for Almond Milk
When shopping for almond milk, it’s important to know that there are many varieties. The most common is original and unsweetened, and then unflavored and vanilla flavored. The healthier option is unsweetened as the sweetened varieties can include 5 grams of added sugar or more.
You also want to make sure that almond milk has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Also, if you’re concerned about additives, there are certain brands which omit carrageenan so make sure to read the ingredient list.