There’s never been a better time to be a plant-based milk connoisseur... and probably no more annoying time to be a barista. (“Sorry, we’re all out of hemp milk, but would you like a half-caff cashew, rice, oat, almond, or soy milk latte instead?”) A ton of tasty, satisfying, and most importantly, nutrient-dense alternatives to cow milk are on the market -- which is awesome, because research is revealing that dairy milk isn’t even a great source of calcium.
We asked doctors and looked at studies to figure out which plant-based milks offer the most nutritional bang for your caloric buck. They were unanimous in stating that nondairy milks aren’t one-size-fits all. The best choice will depend on your own dietary needs. Heart disease is the number-one killer in the US and one in three Americans is obese, so we’re going to assume most readers want low-calorie options that are good for their hearts. With that in mind... here’s the ranking!
8. Rice milk
It’s cheaper than many plant-based milks, high-carb, low fat and usually comes fortified with calcium and vitamin A. Rice has a natural sweetness, so this milk is a natural for mixing in with recipes, but on its own it can be a bit disappointing.
7. Flax milk
Low-calorie flax milk is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation. “Make sure the source flax is non-GMO and organic,” advises Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractic physician who's double-board certified in clinical nutrition and rehabilitation, since doing so will help you avoid pesticides.
6. Coconut milk
It tastes surprisingly rich for a milk with only 80 calories per cup, thanks to its abundance of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). Some evidence suggests these special fats rev up the metabolism, and there’s no arguing that coconut milk mixed into a mango smoothie is a tropical delight. But it's probably not the ideal choice for coffee or cereal, especially if you hate the taste of coconut.
5. Cashew milk
Who doesn't love a slightly sweet, creamy nut milk? Right?! Cashew milk is high in protein, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. “It’s going to have a little more fat in it, but the fat is monounsaturated, which is heart healthy,” says Dr. Garth Davis, medical director of bariatric surgery at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. Some companies make low-fat versions, so be sure to check labels.
4. Hemp milk
“Hemp milk is creamy and higher in fat than other choices,” says Dr. Schreiber. “It contains 10 essential amino acids and is a great source of vitamins and minerals.” It also has 500mg of calcium per cup (more than whole milk, which has 275mg), plenty of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and the fats are of the unsaturated variety, which means they're “good fats.”
Dr. Davis says hemp milk’s taste is a little stronger and earthier than that of a soy or almond milk. It’s not his first choice for pouring on cereal. And no, it contains no THC and won’t get you high -- a plus or a minus, depending who you ask.
3. Oat milk
Dr. Davis loves the taste of oat milk, which contains protein and fiber -- sometimes enough to qualify it as a serving of whole grains -- and is great for digestion. It also contains phytochemicals, which are antioxidants that fight cancer. However, gluten-free individuals should steer clear: oats are grown in the same fields as wheat, and contamination can occur, Dr. Schreiber says. So if you're a celiac, you might want to steer clear.
2. Almond milk
Lower in calories than soy milk, almond milk is a good choice for both people looking to lose weight and diabetics, thanks to its low glycemic index. Unsweetened versions clock in at only 30 calories per cup. Though it doesn’t have a ton of protein (only 1 gram), it has more fiber than milk (1 gram compared to milk’s 0 grams). Of course, straight-up almonds confer way more fiber, protein, and minerals than the crushed, watered-down version, but they're pretty tasty in coffee.
“It’s fairly easy to make almond milk,” Dr. Davis points out. He suggests tweaking sugar-free and homemade versions by adding vanilla, stevia, honey, or cinnamon.
While almond cultivation was blamed (somewhat unfairly) for exacerbating California’s drought conditions, the truth is almonds don’t require more water than other fruits or nuts. “Low water methods are being used with lower per-acre production, but good success already,” says Arthur Gillett, research director at HowGood.
Let’s not forget the real water gluttons: cows, who drink 30 to 50 gallons of H20 a day.
1. Soy milk
Yes, the best nondairy milk also is the O.G. What sets soy milk apart from other plant-based milks is its high levels of protein: 7 grams per 100-calorie cup. Protein is important when it comes to a sense of satiety (basically just feeling full), and when you’re cutting calories, that’s definitely something you want to pay attention to. Plus, there’s evidence that soy protein consumption benefits the heart. Soy milk also has vitamins A, B12, and D, and packs in just as much calcium as a cup of skim milk (300 mg).
“But what about that phytoestrogen thing?” you might wonder. “Won’t soy milk mess with my hormones?”
“That’s not true at all,” says Dr. Davis. “Soy milk doesn’t cause boobs in men, and the studies show it might be beneficial for people who have had breast cancer. You’ll get a whole bunch more hormones from a cow than you will from soy.”
Soy milk’s taste also is among the closest to dairy milk’s, so if you’re a plant-based milk n00b, that could be a plus.
When in doubt, try 'em all
Even though this ranking attempts to differentiate between the various nondairy milks, they're all probably better in the long run than dairy, and you can pick and choose to create the flavors your taste buds prefer, and the nutrients your body needs.
“I tell people to try all the different milks,” Dr. Davis says. “I counsel my patients away from animal products as much as possible. Not everyone has to be vegan, but if you choose a nut milk, you’re choosing a lower-fat, nutrient dense food -- and then I’m happy.”
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