A Guide to Plant-Based Milks

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Making the most of your plant-based milk

Protein, fat, additives, allergies, the environment—not to mention taste. There are countless reasons why we choose the plant-based milks we do, and there seems to be a niche product for every preference. Ann and I joined our nutritional and culinary forces to break it all down and help you get the best bang for your buck!

Right now, there’s a vanilla almond milk, oat milk, and pistachio milk in my refrigerator. I’m curious about the vast array of milks currently available–and I’m not alone. The ever-evolving plant-based milk category is expected to grow at an average rate of nearly 10% annually over the next 10 years.

There are many reasons why people are giving non-dairy a shot – health, environmental impact, processing, shelf stability, taste, and worker’s rights to name a few. Frequently, a combination of these factors impacts the milk we gravitate towards, making it impossible to identify the outright best product for everyone.

To that end, we’ve highlighted the most unique features of the various alternative milks along with how to utilize them to get the biggest bang for your buck. I’ve included some recipes and tips from Ann too!

🥛 First, 6 quick reminders about alternative milks…

  1. Each brand has unique processing techniques and standards. The nutritional profile will vary widely based on fortification and additives. Read the ingredients list to ensure the product is safe for you.
  2. Some are purchased cold and must stay refrigerated, while others are shelf stable until opened. Most brands recommend consuming within a week or so but depending on the brand may stay fresh for longer.
  3. They are more expensive than cow’s milk.
  4. For those with specialized nutrition needs – as with certain chronic disease – it’s best to speak with your physician or dietitian before making a swap.
  5. According to a 2021 review of 32 research studies on milk alternatives, salt and sugar are the most common additives in plant-based milks and are intended to improve taste, texture, and shelf life.
  6. Shake the container before drinking, as this will positively impact taste and consistency.

#1 Best Seller – Almond Milk

  • Allergy alert – Almond milk is not safe for those with nut allergy.
  • Low protein – It provides <2gm protein/cup. In comparison, eating ¼ cup almonds provides 6mg of protein.
  • Processing – Sugar and salt are the most frequent additives for almond milk, and “extra creamy” varieties typically include almond oil, which results in a higher level of unsaturated fat.
  • Environmental Impact – Though it uses less water than dairy milk, almond milk ranks highest in water use among the plant-based milks thanks to the water required to grow almond trees. It also happens to score lowest in greenhouse gas emissions 🤷‍♀️.
  • Best uses – This includes cereal and baked oatmeal like Morning Glory Baked Oatmeal, PB&J Breakfast Chia pudding, Nutella Pops, and muffins like Green Monster Smoothie. If you’re a fan of peanut butter powder, try mixing it with almond milk instead of water. Add a touch of confectioner’s sugar for a high-protein frosting.
  • Blended varieties – We tried an almond milk blended with cashew milk and macadamia nuts that resulted in a more neutral, slightly sweeter and creamier product. You can also blend your own with Homemade Almond Milk and Homemade Cashew Milk!

#2 Best Seller – Oat Milk

  • Allergy alert – Most varieties are gluten-free, but some brands have trace amounts of gluten or are processed in a facility that contains gluten.
  • High in fiber – It has 2-3gm fiber/cup, specifically beta glucans. This contributes to higher carbohydrate than other plant-based milks (it’s 1 exchange or 12-15gm, similar to cow’s milk).
  • Least amount of additives – Of the brands we tried, the ingredients were the most straightforward – just oats and water – but again, this varies by brand. (Oatly, which is one of the most popular, does).
  • Expensive – It costs nearly $5.50/half gallon or double the price of cow’s milk, and tends to be the most expensive plant-based milk on the market.
  • Best uses – Oat milk froths really well so it works well in a Homemade Latte or mixed into Cold Brew Coffee. In fact, freezing oat milk as ice cubes will make the coffee extra creamy without watering it down. Try adding it to a bowl of frozen berries and then stir for a minute or two. The fruit will freeze the milk to make an icy snack!

#3 Best Seller – Soy Milk

  • Compares to cow’s milk – It’s similar in protein quantity as well as essential amino acid composition, making it the highest biological value protein of all plant-based milks.
  • Cancer risk – Despite sensationalized headlines we may remember reading about soy, there’s no evidence that soy intake in humans will increase risk of cancer, and may in fact lower risk of breast cancer. The least processed versions of soy (edamame, tofu, soy milk, and miso to name a few) will be higher in nutrients, and potentially offer more health benefit than more processed soy found found in packaged burgers or bars for example. 
  • Environmental Impact The production of soy milk uses less water than other plant-based milks.
  • Color – The color is brownish–almost like baby-formula—which may be off-putting to some. But the flavor is pleasantly neutral and the texture is creamy.
  • Best uses – Great for a post workout shake like the 5-Ingredient Very Berry Smoothie because it’s naturally high in protein. Also works well in Peach Melba Overnight Oats or Vermont Breakfast Bread.

#4 Best Seller – Coconut Beverage (not the same as coconut milk or coconut water)

  • High fat – Despite being plant-based, coconut is naturally high in saturated fat (as you can see when coconut oil is solid at room temperature). This contributes to high calorie content, along with the added sugar often used in processing.
  • Coconut flavor – It does taste like coconut, but it’s very mild. Coconut fans would likely enjoy the hint of tropical flavor, while those who don’t enjoy the flavor may not find it subtle enough. In a pinch, Ann has added a quart of water to the more concentrated canned coconut milk to replicate the variety sold in the carton.
  • Best uses – Pair it with coconut-friendly foods (like pumpkin, berries, citrus, and other tropical fruits) and recipes like Raspberry Peach Coconut Smoothie, Blueberry Coconut Almond Baked Oatmeal, or Emma’s Favorite Cupcakes. Try making buttermilk from scratch by adding 1 tablespoon lemon juice to one cup of coconut milk and use in recipes like this Southern Cornbread or Pumpkin Bran Muffins.

Honorable Mention

While these plant-based varieties don’t get as much attention, they do distinguish themselves in some ways and may be worth trying.

  • Rice Milk – It’s safe for most allergens and with a mildly sweet taste can work as a substitute for milk in dishes like baked oatmeal. Try using it to make a quick horchata with a bit of added cinnamon and sugar!
  • Hemp Milk – It’s safe for most allergens and happens to look the most like cow’s milk. The flavor is a bit grassy tasting and mildly bitter. Ann recently tested it in overnight oats but felt she needed to mask the grassy flavor with vanilla yogurt. Some (especially vegans) may be intrigued by the alpha-linoleic Omega-3s, but a reminder that much will be removed from the seed during processing.
  • Pistachio Milk – This growth and production process uses half as much water as almonds, pistachio milk will froth like oat milk, and contains protein and fiber. Try in this Homemade Chai Concentrate for an iced chai latte!
  • Pea Milk – It’s a higher protein plant-based milk option and doesn’t have the nutty taste that may not appeal to all (though there can be a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste). The production of pea milk uses much less water than almond milk, and it is currently considered one of the more environmentally friendly options. Use as a worthy substitute for soy milk if looking for another higher protein plant-based beverage.
  • Chocolate Almond & Chocolate Oat Milk – Over ice, these are delicious to add to leftover morning coffee in the summer for a refreshingly sweet afternoon iced mocha. 

What about dairy milk?

If you’re sticking to cow’s milk there are quite a few varieties to choose from within this category – lactose free, fat-free, low fat, organic, grass-fed, A2 (milk with only A2 protein), unpasteurized (raw), Omega-3, and even goat’s milk. These specialized milks may be more costly, but knowing your options is valuable.

Key Takeaways

  • The reasons to consider plant-based milks include issues such as environmental impact, health, processing, shelf stability, taste, and worker’s rights.
  • There isn’t one best plant-based milk.
  • Plant-based milks are not nutritionally equivalent to milk in macro- or micronutrients, but some brands do fortify.
  • There are many Fountain Avenue Kitchen recipes where plant-based milks work as well as cow milk. You can even make your own almond or cashew milk

 ❤️  We love hearing more from you. Feel free to comment below or ask any further questions you have about plant-based milk alternatives. 

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