What to Eat: What to Sip and What to Skip in the Non-Dairy Aisle

Moove over, cow’s milk. A growing number of Americans are ditching dairy for “milks” made from almonds, cashews, coconut, flax, hazelnuts, hemp, oats, rice, soy, or other plants.

But what looks like milk in your cup may look nothing like milk to your body. If you add a rice or oat milk to your cereal, for example, you’re adding grains to your grains.

Here are our tips on what to try and what to pass by.

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1. Check for Protein. Only soy milk is likely to equal the 8 grams of protein in a cup of cow’s milk. (Check the label—light or sweetened soy milks may have just 5 or 6 grams.)

In contrast, hemp and oat milks have just 2 to 4 grams of protein. And most almond, cashew, coconut, flax, and rice milks have a measly 1 gram, if that. Exceptions: So Delicious Almond Plus, Silk Protein+Fiber Almondmilk, and Good Karma Protein+ Unsweetened Flaxmilk add pea or rice protein to hit 5 grams.

Does protein matter? It depends. If your breakfast is just cereal with non-dairy milk, look for at least 7 grams of protein per cup. That knocks out everything except soy milk.

But if you’re having a 30-to-50-calorie cup of almond milk as a beverage, protein may not matter.

2. Look for nutrients. Cow’s milk is packed with nutrients. Those you’re most likely to need: calcium, vitamin B-12, potassium, and (added) vitamin D. What about non-dairy?

• Check the vitamins and minerals. Some non-dairy milks are fortified to dupe cow’s milk’s calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B-12. (In fact, older people who make too little stomach acid can absorb added B-12 more easily than the naturally occurring B-12 in cow’s milk.)

• Pick soy for potassium. Most soy milks match cow’s milk’s potassium—which can help keep a lid on blood pressure. Most other non-dairy milks fall far short.

• Don’t be wowed by calcium claims. “50% more calcium than dairy milk,” boast most Silk non-dairy milks. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for adults is 1,000 milligrams a day. It jumps to 1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70. That includes what you get from food and from supplements.

But more isn’t necessarily better. High levels of calcium from supplements (at least 1,000 mg a day) may raise the risk of kidney stones and hip fractures. And the calcium that’s added to non-dairy milks counts as a supplement.

3. Minimize added sugars. Each cup of cow’s milk has 3 teaspoons (12 grams) of a naturally occurring sugar called lactose.

In contrast, nearly all the sugars in non-dairy milks—like evaporated cane syrup, cane sugar, honey, or brown rice syrup—are added. That means you can dodge them.

Here’s how:

• Get unsweetened. A cup of most unsweetened non-dairy milks has no more than 1 gram of naturally occurring sugar. (Soy can reach 2 grams.) We recommend choosing non-dairy milks with no more than 5 grams (about 1 teaspoon) of added sugars.

• Don’t like unsweetened? Try original. A cup of most “Original” almond milks and soy milks has just 1 to 1½ teaspoons of added sugars. Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Reduced Sugar Original Almondmilk has just ½ teaspoon.

• Avoid vanilla, chocolate, and coffee. Many people who would never go near chocolate milk seem to think that the added sugars don’t count if the milk is non-dairy. Wrong. Expect 2 to 3 teaspoons of added sugars in a cup of sweetened vanilla, and 3 to 5 teaspoons in sweetened chocolate or coffee. That’s close to a day’s worth (6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men).

Tip: Blue Diamond makes an Unsweetened Chocolate Almondmilk. It’s light on the chocolate, but it’s not bad. Try it in a smoothie.

• Beware of sugary grain milks. Pacific Organic Vanilla Oat milk is “Naturally sweet with no added sugar,” according to the label. Yet it has 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugars per cup. Where do they come from?

Pacific adds enzymes that break down the oats’ starches into sugar. Dream Blends, Rice Dream, and Trader Joe’s appear to treat some of their grain milks similarly. We count their sugars as added.

• Skip questionable sweeteners. Silk Light Soymilk blends (safe) stevia with cane sugar. Our Best Bites and Honorable Mentions have no sucralose or monk fruit extract, which we rate as “Caution” (see chemicalcuisine.org).

4. Skip coconut’s saturated fat. Most non-dairy milks have no more than 1 gram of saturated fat per cup. They’ll also give you some healthy unsaturated fat.

But coconut milk is different. It’s got 4 or 5 grams of saturated fat and no unsaturated fat. And don’t assume that coconut’s sat fat is harmless because it raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol along with LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. HDL may not matter.

To play it safe, try almond-coconut milk blends by Blue Diamond or Silk. Their saturated fat: just 1 gram.

Other relevant links:

• Will chocolate milk help you recover from exercise? See: Should You Drink Chocolate Milk After a Workout?

• Does organic milk have more omega-3 fats? See: Organic Milk Misunderstanding

• Can consuming soy help with some of these health problems? See: How to Diet: What are the Benefits of Soy?

9 Replies to “What to Eat: What to Sip and What to Skip in the Non-Dairy Aisle”

  1. A coconut almond blend by Califia at Whole foods has 50 calories per 8 oz, is the best tasting non dairy gluten free drink I have tried!!!! The only ingredients are almond milk and coconut cream.

  2. I am so disturbed by this article. SOY MILK IS NOT GOOD FOR YOU!! EVER!! No one should ever be eating soy unless it’s fermented, like tempeh, natto, miso. And these people don’t know the whole story about fat either. Or grains, for that matter. If you want real health and nutrition advice you can trust, follow Dr. Mercola like I have since I decided to take my health into my own hands. He has a daily health newsletter, and TONS of other info on his website: http://www.mercola.com. In the meantime, stay away from soy, whatever you do!!

    1. From the Nutrition Action Healthletter. We disagree that soy milk is not a good food. We do not find Joseph Mercola’s claims convincing.

  3. soy is responsible for the largest amount of rainforest loss in Brazil SOY IS DESTROYING OUR PLANET OXYGEN SUPPLY. THE RAINFOREST MAKES UP 5%OF OUR PLANET AND IS BEING DESTROYED AT THE RATE OF ONE FOOTBALL FIELD PER MINUTE …..24/7

    1. From Nutrition Action Healthletter: Our parent organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is not a research company. It is a nonprofit consumer group founded in 1971. We do not find convincing the claims that milk is an unhealthy food.

  4. I drink NATURA (Non GMO) Organic Soy Beverage – supporting Canadian Organic Farmers, and feel confident that it has not contributed to the loss of ancient hard-wood forests… What is more – it does not contain the suspected carcinogen, carrageenan – like So Good and Silk, etc. Why was this not included in your research?

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