By Debra Waters published
Interest in milk alternatives has never been higher and business is booming as a result. According to the Vegan Society, the plant milk market will have an estimated value of $705.3 million, or £498,717,630, by 2025—double its 2019 value. But with so many brands offering milk alternatives, it can be confusing knowing which one is best for you. While taste plays a big part, you may also be going dairy-free for health reasons or due to environmental concerns.
“More and more people these days are trying out non-dairy milks,” says nutrition expert Mina Khan, founder of Formulate Health. This is largely because not only are milk alternatives essential if you are vegan or experience certain intolerances, but they’re better for animal welfare and the planet".
“From an environmental perspective, cow’s milk creates more greenhouse gases and requires more land and water usage than some of the milk alternatives,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope. Plus, milk alternatives offer a wider range of tastes and choices—ideal if you enjoy whipping up new and exciting recipes or are looking for a tasty substitute for your favorite easy smoothie recipes (our guide to the best blenders might come in useful here if that's the case.)
Here’s our rundown of the best choices in terms of health, and what you need to do before making a switch to milk alternatives for good.
What to look for in milk alternatives
Cutting cow’s milk from your diet increases your risk of nutrient deficiencies. Speak to your doctor if you have concerns and ensure you check the labels of milk alternatives to find the most nutrient-rich plant milk. Look for:
- As few ingredients as possible
- The word "unsweetened" or "0g added sugar"
- A minimum of 7g of protein per serving
- Less than 140mg of sodium per serving
- Fortification with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12
- Limited saturated fat
The 16 best milk alternatives according to health experts
Here are some of the most well-known milk alternatives on the market. You’ll probably have to experiment with a few types and brands to find ones that work for you, or you may decide to have one type in your coffee and use another for baking or cooking.
1. Soy milk
Arguably the most famous plant milk, soya milk has a creamy, slightly nutty taste. “It’s delicious in most popular coffee trends and ideal for stirring into rich sauces or risottos,” says Hope. It’s sustainable, too.
Health benefits: Soya is popular with perimenopausal women thanks to its isoflavones. The British Dietetic Association confirms that 2-3 servings of soya products a day (equivalent to two glasses of soya milk or 100g soya mince) may help to reduce hot flushes, as well as lower cholesterol and protect the heart after menopause. It’s regarded as the most nutritionally similar to cow’s milk and is lower in calories, sugars, and fat than many other milk alternatives.
“It’s also higher in protein than many of the other plant milk as it contains around 3.5g of protein per 100ml,” says Hope. “Additionally, it contains calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.” It's no surprise that these minerals are in many menopause supplements.
Dr Federica Amati, a nutritionist and chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements, adds: “It has a great nutrient profile,” she says. “But you must avoid it if you have a soy allergy.”
2. Almond milk
For those of us who love the subtle sweet taste of almonds, this milk alternative is perfect for lattes and smoothies (ideal if you're following the smoothie diet). Its moderate flavor makes it a versatile option in porridge or on cereals, too. “However, from an eco perspective, almonds require more water and therefore may not be the most environmentally friendly option,” says Hope.
Health benefits: Almonds are a great source of vegan protein. “Almond milk is higher in protein than oat milk and contains around 1g of protein per 100ml. Additionally, it’s lower in calories than oat milk and if you buy a fortified version it can be a nutrient-dense option,” says Hope. “But when you’re looking for fortified plant milks ensure they contain a minimum of calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D,” she warns.
Unfortified, unsweetened almond milk, for example, tends to be made up of spring water and less than 10% nuts. If you know about the health benefits of protein powder for women over 50, then almond milk is a great addition to the mix.
3. Rice milk
“Rice milk tends to be highest in sugar and provides a mild, sweet flavor which can sometimes be overpowering,” explains Hope. “Due to the sweetness, it’s best used in baking or hot chocolates to reduce added sugars,” she says.
Health benefits: Higher in calories than other plant-based milks, rice milk also has less protein and micronutrients than other options. But it’s low in saturated fat and—if fortified—is rich in calcium and vitamins such as B2, B12 and D. Check the label, though—brands often add sweeteners to counteract the bland taste.
A word of warning—Dr Amati recommends that rice milk isn’t given to young children. “The high arsenic content makes this dangerous for under 5s,” she says.
4. Coconut milk
Not the same as the coconut milk used in Asian cuisine, this dairy-free alternative is made from real coconut and—usually—added vitamins and calcium. It has a more watery consistency than the milk you’d cook with but more substance than coconut water. If you like coconut, you’ll love the taste. “The subtle coconut flavor makes it ideal for smoothies,” says Hope. It’s also good in porridge, lattes and “milk” shakes and can be used in baking.
Health benefits: “It’s lower in calories and protein, but has higher levels of saturated fat than other plant-based options, albeit not particularly high,” says Hope.
“Coconut milk often contains added rice to increase the sweetness,” she adds. “As a result, it can increase the total sugars within the product. It’s also higher in carbohydrates than some other milks, adds Dr Amati, so it’s best avoided if you’re on a low carb diet. Opt for fortified versions and avoid brands with added sugar. If you're researching how to lose belly fat or how to lose a stone in a month, then coconut milk probably isn't the right fit for you.
5. Hemp milk
“Relatively environmentally friendly as it requires less water for production,” says Hope, hemp—as a crop—also breathes in four times more carbon dioxide than forests. Hemp milk is also free from soy, gluten and lactose, making it an excellent choice for those with allergies.
A good substitute for cow’s milk, it tastes a little nutty and earthy. “Because it’s lower in sugar it works well in more savory dishes, too,” says Hope.
Health benefits: “This is packed with plant proteins, healthy fats (such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) and minerals,” says Khan.
"While from the same plant that produces marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive compound THC! Highly nutritious, with more protein and healthy fats than other plant-based milks, it has fewer carbs and calories than cow’s milk.”
6. Cashew milk
Are cashews always your go-to when eating nuts? Then it's likely you'll enjoy this milk alternative. The texture of cashew milk suits coffee, smoothies, cereal and bakes. It tastes less nutty than other nut milks but is creamier and sweeter, so if you don’t take sugar avoid this in drinks (but do include it in a creamy curry).
As a crop, it’s a mixed bag ecologically. “Environmentally, cashews require significant amounts of water but their trees also absorb carbon dioxide,” explains Hope. “Furthermore, cashews require transportation as they’re only grown in tropical countries and therefore it’s a hit and miss on the environmental aspect.”
Health benefits: “Made from whole cashews and water, this dairy and lactose-free milk alternative contains healthy unsaturated fats, several vitamins and minerals, and protein,” says Khan. It’s also relatively low in calories.
Khan adds: “There are no naturally occurring sugars and it’s free of cholesterol and saturated fats.”
7. Oat Milk
This is one of the most popular—and ubiquitous—milk alternatives. “It’s also another option with lower water requirements, making it an environmentally friendly milk,” says Hope.
Its sweetness and creaminess is delicious in all coffee trends, matcha or chai and it is the perfect nut-free alternative for adding to baked recipes and porridge, says Hope. And if you like getting the benefits of cinnamon by adding a sprinkle on your morning porridge—oat milk complements this super-spice perfectly.
Health benefits: Higher in carbs and calories than some other milks, you’re better off buying a fortified version to reap the health benefits. While brands vary, many contain vitamins B12 and D, as well as calcium and iodine. “It’s also naturally sweet, which means it contains sugars,” says Hope, and it won’t be gluten-free unless stated on the carton, so it isn’t suitable for everyone.
8. Hazelnut milk
“For any hot chocolate lover, hazelnut milk is a dreamy addition to hot chocolate,” says Hope. Or try it in a chocolate “milk” shake. You can also use it in baking and other recipes that require added sweetness.
Health benefits: Naturally low in saturated fat, and usually fortified with calcium and vitamins B2, B12, and D, this lactose-free, gluten-free and soy-free option is a richer alternative to almond milk. As a result, it contains more calories—though less than soya milk.
“Hazelnut milk is often packed with rice, which also increases the sugar content,” says Hope. This is to thicken the consistency of the milk.
9. Pea milk
Pea milk has a mild taste and a silky texture, which works in hot drinks or in cooking, such as chocolate pud, shakes and pasta sauces.
What’s more, “pea milk is an environmentally friendly option as it produces far less greenhouse gases than nuts,” says Hope.
Health benefits: “The key ingredient is yellow split peas, which are rich in the amino acid lysine, and iron,” says Khan. “It’s also quite high in protein [in fact, it’s one of best plant milks for protein]. Most pea milk will also be fortified in vitamins A, D, calcium and phosphate—essential for bone growth, energy and muscle and nerve function."
Some brands also contain iodine and potassium—making pea milk one of the best milk alternatives to help prevent a nutrient deficiency.
“It can contain a variety of additives and sugars, though,” says Hope. So check the label before buying.
10. Potato milk
This creamy, slightly sweet milk doesn’t taste like potatoes (thankfully). “And it has been said to be one of the most environmentally friendly options,” states Hope. It goes well in coffee, tea and smoothies—froth the unsweetened version for skinny lattes and cappuccinos. You can use it in cooking or in cereal, too.
Health benefits: “A blend of emulsified boiled potatoes and rapeseed oil, the DUG brand—for example—is full of vitamins and minerals,” explains Khan. This includes key vitamins found in immunity supplements such as vitamin D, A, C, E, K, seven B vitamins, plus calcium and iron. It also has a slightly higher protein content than oat milk, says Hope.
11. Pistachio milk
Lactose- and gluten-free, and lower in sugar and calories than oat milk, pistachio milk tastes mild yet rich and sweet, making it perfect for oatmeal or chai tea.
“And it uses less water than almond milk during production,” says Hope. An All Plants article confirms this: “Pistachios are a great deal more sustainable: according to UNESCO, in California, it takes 97 gallons of water (around 368 litres) to make one ounce of almonds, whereas pistachios use 75% less for the same amount,” it states.
Health benefits: Pistachio milk is one of the better plant milks for protein intake, although—because it’s less readily available—it tends to be more expensive.
“Commonly fortified with vitamin B12 and calcium, it contains monounsaturated fatty acids—which are good for the heart—and is rich in copper and magnesium, which can improve bowel function,” says Khan. “It has more potassium than other milk alternatives.”
Are milk alternatives better for you?
You may have already switched to healthy flour alternatives or swapped your usual rice for ancient grains instead, so it might seem natural now to try dairy alternatives. “There are plenty of reasons why so many people opt for dairy-free milk alternatives,” says Khan, but is one of those reasons because they are better for us?
“Milk alternatives tend to have fewer calories, many have less fat and more water content than dairy milks, and many are fortified with other vitamins and nutrients not found in cow’s milk,” she explains.
Milk alternatives are also great for people who are lactose intolerant. “Lactose can aggravate certain conditions, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease,” says Khan.
What dairy-free milk options often lack is calcium, which we require to keep our bones and teeth strong. According to the Association of UK Dietitians adult women require 700mg a day, breastfeeding women need 1,250mg and post-menopausal women 1,200mg.
“Check the fat content, too,” advises Khan. “This is a pitfall that’s easy to miss when it comes to plant-based alternatives to milk, as many need oil to help the liquid bind together, meaning more overall fat content,” she says. “Even if these are good fats it’s still important to monitor your intake.”
How to stay healthy when dropping dairy
Forewarned is forearmed, so if you choose to swap dairy for a milk alternative—whether it’s for ethical, environmental, dietary or other reasons—it’s good to be aware of what this might entail for your health.
“If you stop having cow’s milk there is a risk of nutrient deficiencies if you aren’t ensuring the alternatives are well fortified,” warns Hope. “Where possible, ensure plant milks are unsweetened to reduce total sugar intake and are fortified with key nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.” It’s also worth keeping in mind that while nuts are high in protein, nut milks aren’t as protein-rich as cow’s milk because they’re diluted.
Don’t forget iodine either—a key mineral for regulating thyroid function. “Additionally, iodine can become a high-risk nutrient as its richest sources include cow’s milk, dairy products and white fish,” says Hope. “However, there are limited milks which are fortified with iodine.”
The key to buying milk alternatives is to opt for unsweetened versions fortified with vitamins and minerals. Brands vary in content—some are organic, some are fortified, some have more or less sugars, protein or carbs, and some have a lower carbon footprint than their competitors, so always check the label.”
The eco-benefits of milk alternatives
If you are concerned about the environment, cow’s milk is probably not for you.
“Milk has an enormous carbon footprint due to the dairy industry. It’s also ethically fraught, as cows are repeatedly artificially impregnated to stimulate milk production, only to have their calves taken away so the milk can be pumped for human consumption,” says Dr Amati. The industry also produces a lot of methane.
Environmentally, milk alternatives typically require fewer resources. Oats and soy, two of the most popular alternatives, need much less water and land to produce than cow’s milk. But not all plant milks are an environmental slam dunk. Almond milk, requires significantly more water than both of these (though less than cow’s dairy), and according to reports in the Guardian, its intensive farming is allegedly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of bees.
The supply chains and environmental impact can be difficult to get to the bottom of. If you're looking for a milk alternative for ethical reasons then we recommend looking out for:
- brands using certified-organic ingredients
- Fruits and nuts that are sourced through Fairtrade
Milk alternatives vs dairy milk—the verdict
Nutritionally nothing beats cow’s milk (although soy does comes close). However, when it comes to environmental factors, it’s widely agreed that most milk alternatives are better for the planet than dairy.
Dr Amati advises: “However, good quality in small quantities is probably where the magic spot is for milk consumption, unless you are intolerant to lactose or allergic to milk proteins, in which case avoid it!”
Debra Waters is an experienced online editor and lifestyle writer with a focus on health, wellbeing, beauty, food and parenting. Currently, she writes for the websites and Woman&Home and GoodtoKnow, as well as the Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Weekly magazines.
Previously, Debra was digital food editor at delicious magazine and MSN. She’s written for M&S Food, Great British Chefs, loveFOOD, What to Expect, Everyday Health and Time Out, and has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Big Issue.
When she’s not parenting, cooking new dishes or trying (in vain) to make her cats Instagram stars, Debra writes fiction—she won the Bridport Short Story Prize in 2020, which led to an interview on R4’s Woman’s Hour, and her stories have been long- and short-listed in a number of writing competitions.
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