When choosing milk, it’s not just a matter of whole, low-fat, nonfat, or flavored anymore. There’s a growing array of plant-based “milks” made from nuts, rice, soy, even oats and hemp, which have become a billion-dollar business. These beverages are not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk, especially in terms of protein (except soy milk), but they’re often fortified with certain nutrients to make them comparable. And they can be good choices if you are lactose-intolerant (that is, have trouble digesting milk sugar) or just don’t want to drink cow’s milk. Of course, these nondairy beverages are not replacements for infant formula.
Made by soaking, crushing, cooking, and straining soybeans, soy milk is a good source of protein (often as much as cow’s milk), along with some B vitamins, phosphorus, iron, copper, magnesium, potassium, and usually a little fiber (dairy milk has none). Soy milk also contains isoflavones, potentially healthful plant chemicals.
Made from ground almonds, cashews, or hazelnuts, nut milks tend to be highly diluted with water. Thus they are relatively low in calories and supply only small amounts of the nutrients in the nuts—including protein, vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, and copper. The small amount of fat in nut milk is unsaturated and thus heart-healthy. Some leading nut milks contain the controversial thickener carrageenan; others are thickened with a variety of gums.
Consisting mostly of carbohydrates, rice milk is low in protein and fat (though some have added vegetable oil). Though usually made from brown rice, the milk has no fiber and is thin in consistency. It’s naturally sweeter than other nondairy beverages and least likely to cause allergies.
Made from oat groats (oats that have been cleaned, toasted, and hulled), oat milk contains about half the protein of cow’s milk. Oat bran is sometimes added to increase fiber. It’s slightly sweet with a thin consistency, similar to nonfat or 1% milk.
Made from the seeds of the industrial hemp plant (varieties of Cannabis sativa that are low in THC and grown for food and textile uses), hemp milk supplies protein, alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fat also found in flaxseeds and walnuts), and other healthy unsaturated fats. Hemp foods contain at most only trace amounts of THC and other psychoactive compounds.
Made from grated and squeezed coconut meat, this high-calorie, high-fat beverage is not for drinking straight up, but can be used, in small amounts, in cooking. “Coconut milk beverages” contain extra water, so they have much less fat and far fewer calories and can be drunk like other milks.
Most nondairy beverages are sweetened with sugar (such as rice syrup, barley malt, or cane sugar), which increases calories. Chocolate and other flavored beverages have even more sugar—the equivalent to as much as five added teaspoons per cup—and up to 170 calories. Unsweetened versions have as few as 35 calories a cup. Though the fat in these drinks (except coconut milk) is heart-healthy unsaturated fat, nonfat and low-fat versions will save you calories.