by | Apr 20, 2021 | 0 comments

Do you remember 10 years ago, how coffee shops had only half & half or fat-free milk?  How oat milk ice cream and plant-based cheese and soy milk and almond yogurt and cashew cream cheese hardly even existed?  I do, and while I roll my eyes at many trends, I’m so glad this one has stuck around.

Non-dairy milks are incredibly popular and increasingly available – in fact, milk-alternative retail sales grew 16% in 2020 and have had a CAGR (a compound growth rate) of 6.7% from 2005-2020.  So it looks like they’re here to stay … but it can be overwhelming to choose between them.  Which tastes better?  Which is healthier?  Which brand is best?  I’ll answer all these questions and more in this post!

Why use non-dairy milk in the first place?

The short answer is that cow’s milk is inflammatory for the majority of Americans (and most humans overall).  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have digestive upset or hives or any other noticeable immediate reaction when you consume dairy, but it does mean that it’s contributing to the inflammatory load that your body is carrying, which can contribute to everything from brain fog to joint pain, from skin breakouts to bloating and digestive issues.

Most conventional dairy is filled with bovine growth hormone and antibiotics, which can interfere with our own hormones’ ability to function and can contribute to antibiotic resistance over the long-term.  The large-scale industrial farms (CAFOs) that produce most milk are not only treating the animals
poorly but are also contributing to global warming and soil depletion.  For more on whether “regular” dairy is healthy, see this post.

Yet, the idea of not having any milk, coffee creamer, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, or other dairy is off-putting to many people (including me!), and organic options are not always available or tolerated.  So, non-dairy alternatives can be a saving grace!

Which type of non-dairy milk is best?

I don’t have a simple answer for this one; it really depends on your goals.  But I’ll review 7 types of non-dairy milk, giving you some benefits and drawbacks of each, and I’ll let you decide for yourselves!  Here are some of my personal favorites:

  • Almond milk
    • Pros:
      • Often the most readily available non-dairy option
      • Mild taste
      • Very versatile – can be used in recipes, smoothies, and more
      • Unsweetened varieties are usually low in calories
      • 1 cup contains 50% of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin E
    • Cons:
      • High water requirements for almond growing are causing significant environmental concerns.
      • Very little protein (see the importance of protein here!)
  • Cashew milk
    • Pros:
      • Natural sweetness and creaminess make it a taste and consistency preference for many
      • Most options are low in calories, carbohydrates, and fat
    • Cons:
      • Lacks protein, vitamin, and mineral content of some other non-dairy options
  • Coconut milk
    • Pros:
      • Canned coconut milk often has only one ingredient, coconut milk, which is great! Most non-dairy milks have several other ingredients
      • Canned coconut milk is a great source of healthy fats, including lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that is a quick source of energy for your body
      • Full-fat coconut milk has a rich flavor and natural sweetness, making it a favorite in baking or dishes that require a hint of sweetness
      • Carton-based coconut milk is a lower-calorie option (also with less of the healthy fat) that is still versatile but more tasteless
    • Cons:
      • Very little protein (see the importance of protein here!)
  • Flax milk
    • Pros:
      • Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, especially alpha linoleic acid
      • Lower calorie option, making it a good choice if you’re adding it to smoothies or other mixtures which will provide calories, protein, and healthy fats
    • Cons:
      • Tastes very watery
      • Very little protein (see the importance of protein here!)
  • Oat milk
    • Pros:
      • Versatile taste – can be used in smoothies, coffees, baking, and more
      • Froths well for those who like lattes
    • Cons:
      • Very high in carbohydrates and low in protein or fat, which can spike blood sugar
      • Most varieties are sweetened and add extra sugar to your daily intake
  • Rice milk
    • Pros:
      • Great for those with allergies who cannot tolerate almond, cashew, nut, or soy milk
    • Cons:
      • Tastes very watery
      • Very high in carbohydrates and low in protein or fat, which can spike blood sugar
  • Soy milk
    • Pros:
      • The highest protein non-dairy milk, closest to the nutritional profile of cow’s milk
      • Very versatile – can be used in recipes, smoothies, and more
      • Readily available
    • Cons:

There are several other non-dairy milk varieties … hemp, walnut, peanut, pea, macadamia, quinoa, and hazelnut milks are some of the many I’ve tried.  But the above list represents the most common non-dairy milk alternatives, and hopefully provides you with a good start!

What to look out for on labels

Once you decide which type of non-dairy milk to drink, how do you select among the brands available?  It’s all about the ingredients, just like usual, but deciphering what’s healthy can be confusing.  Here are a few specific things to look for when deciding which non-dairy milk to buy:

  • Organic: Not only does is organic good for you (because it eliminates many harmful pesticides, herbicides, and more), but it’s also good for the planet. For more, I recommend reading “Food Fix”.
  • Non-GMO: This is most important for soy milk, in my opinion, but doesn’t hurt to look for the GMO Project label on any option
  • Added sugar: We’re looking for the front to say “unsweetened,” and if it doesn’t, turn it around and look on the nutrition facts panel. If there is a line for “added sugar,” it should say zero.  If there’s no line for added sugar, you have to look at the ingredients, and scout out anything that says “sugar,” “syrup,” or ends in “-ose” (like sucrose, dextrose, or maltose).
  • Carrageenan: I look for no carrageenan in my non-dairy milk options, since it has been linked to colitis, inflammation, and other gut issues.
  • Natural flavors: This is a nondescript, umbrella term for any flavoring agent that has a component that originated from a plant. Sounds OK, but it might have been overly processed and not be great for you.  If I lived in a perfect world, I would stay away from these 100%, but since I’m here doing my best just like you, I give it a free pass on most occasions.
  • Other additives: Ideally, the non-dairy milk option would have the main ingredient (almond, oat, etc.) and water only, maybe with the addition of salt or organic vanilla or something of the like. But most options out there have stabilizers and emulsifiers to improve the consistency and shelf life.  I am personally fine with locust bean gum, gellan gum, and guar gum in extreme moderation, meaning that I really only get it from my non-dairy milks, which I consume in small amounts.  But if you’re going to down several glasses of this per day, or you have a digestive issue that is currently flaring, I would avoid these.  This post gives great information on some of these additives.

Healthiest brands of non-dairy milk

The three healthiest varieties of non-dairy milk are:

  • Make your own: By far, the healthiest option is to make your own! While I’ve done it before, it’s a bit cumbersome, and I choose not to do it most times.
  • Mooala: Mooala is always organic and uses minimal to no preservatives or added ingredients. It tastes amazing (especially the coconut oat milk) and is local to Dallas, so it’s a brand I support regularly.
  • Malk: The only commercial option I’ve seen that uses sprouted nuts, which are better for your digestion, as well as no preservatives or fillers. They also have “classic” (non-sprouted) varieties. Malk is generally higher in calories than other options because it’s not as strained, but that gives it a thicker texture that some love.

Here are a few other widely available and relatively healthy options:

  • Califia Farms: Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Coconut milk tastes sooo I buy one almost every week and use it in small amounts in my coffee or other things where I’ll appreciate the taste.  It does have natural flavorings and some of the additives I described above, but it doesn’t have anything that I balk at.
  • Silk: Silk is a commonly available option, and I buy their cashew milk on occasion despite some of the additives mentioned above. It’s very low calorie (25 calories per cup), making it a good option for smoothies.  Note that it does have almonds, which is tricky if you’re looking to avoid those.
  • So Delicious: Another commonly available option with some good unsweetened options (like the vanilla coconut milk), but more preservatives than most.
  • Milkadamia: This is my favorite shelf-stable variety, because it tastes great and uses far less preservatives than most shelf-stable options.

Now it’s your turn … Do you use non-dairy milk?  Which is your favorite type?  Which is your favorite brand?

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Megan Lyons Headshot

Hi! I'm Megan Lyons,

the voice behind The Lyons’ Share. I love all things health, wellness, and fitness-related, and I hope to share some of my passion with you. Thanks for stopping by!
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