What You Need To Know Before Buying Non-Dairy Milk—Plus The 6 Healthiest Brands To Try

Real milk isn't something most people should avoid. But if you must, here's how to find a legitimately nutritious swap.

November 13, 2017
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Like gluten-free bread, every carton of non-dairy milk has a big, glowing health halo sitting on top. Which is why so many of us have gotten into the habit of instinctively reaching for it at the grocery store, or requesting it in our lattes.

But the superfood reputation isn’t always deserved. Sure, some dairy-free drinks are legitimately good for you. But plenty of others are basically water with some thickeners and sweeteners thrown in. “You shouldn’t grab a milk just because it’s plant-based,” says registered dietician Rebecca Ditkoff. Here’s why, plus which non-dairy milks are actually worth buying. 

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Plant milks aren’t necessarily healthier than cow’s milk

That almond or hempseed milk might seem virtuous, but plant milks aren’t automatically a better choice. “If you don’t have a milk allergy or an intolerance, there’s no inherent reason why you should avoid cow’s milk,” explains Ditkoff. (Unless you’re vegan or you just plain don’t like the taste, of course.)

Especially when you consider what you’re often getting when you down a glass of store-bought plant milk. Even many plain varieties are made with added sugar. And while most have phased out the use of the controversial thickener carrageenan, the majority of brands still contain other thickeners. Some of those, like xanthan gum, can still cause gastrointestinal problems for sensitive tummies, Ditkoff says. 

Related: Why Grassfed Dairy Is Better For You, And How To Avoid The Fake Stuff

As for the whole plant fat vs. animal fat debate? This likely isn’t the first time you’ve heard that saturated fat isn’t nearly as bad as experts once thought. A growing body of evidence shows that consuming dairy—even the full-fat kind—doesn’t raise the risk for heart disease. In fact, whole cow’s milk drinkers are actually less likely to be obese or develop type 2 diabetes compared to those who skip the stuff. 

If you embrace dairy, then you must make this epic mason jar whipped cream this holiday season:

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Some might even be less nutritious

A cup of milk has 8g protein, which can help fill you up and stay satisfied for longer. That’s not always the case with non-dairy options. With the exception of soy and pea milks, most plant-based drinks only offer a few grams of protein at best. That’s even the case for ones that are made from high-protein foods like almonds, hemp seeds, or cashews. Why? Because much of the pulp is filtered out. “Some are mostly water,” says Alissa Rumsey , RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness

That filtering process is also the reason why most plant milks are so low in calories. (Many have 30 to 40 calories per cup.) “Calories come from carbohydrates, protein, and fat,” Rumsey says. “When something is lower in calories, it means it has less of those nutrients,” Rumsey says.

Related: I Swapped My Almond Milk With Full-Fat Dairy For A Month, Here's What I Learned

We hope you enjoy the products we're recommending as much as we do! Just so you know, Organic Life may get a share of sales from the links on this page.
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Ultimately, both types of milk can fit into a healthy diet

You just have to consider how your milk of choice fits into the context of your diet, Ditkoff says. If you’re a fan of low-calorie plant milks, make sure you’re getting your protein from other places—like a scoop of protein powder in your smoothie or a spoonful of nut butter in your cereal. Make it a point to eat other calcium-rich foods too, like leafy greens or whole nuts and seeds. Most non-dairy milks are fortified, “but it’s always better to get your nutrients from whole food sources,” says Ditkoff.

And if you’d like to use plant milk just like cow’s milk? That’s totally fine, says Ditkoff and Rumsey. Just be sure to pick one that stacks up similarly, nutrition-wise. 

Related: How To Make Your Own Almond Milk

Oatly non dairy milk
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If you go non-dairy, here’s what to look for

First, seek out options that are free of added sweeteners by checking the ingredient list—like Milkadamia’s unsweetened macadamia nut milk, or Oatly’s oat milk. “Cane sugar is often the second ingredient in plant milks, and that’s a problem,” Ditkoff says. And opt for milks made without gut-irritating thickeners like carrageenan (and xanthan gum, if its problematic for you). Elmhurst’s line of almond, cashew, hazelnut, and walnut milks are completely thickener-free.  

And if you’re after a milk that packs a protein punch? Good old fashioned soymilk is one solid option. (Look for one that’s organic and non-GMO, like Organic Valley Unsweetened Soy.) But if you’d rather steer clear of soy, give pea protein milk a try. You’ll get 8g protein per cup from Ripple Foods’ Pea Milk, and 10g per cup from Bolthouse Farms’ Plant Protein Milk. They’re made with yellow peas, so the resulting liquid is a milky color (not green). And they taste mildly nutty and sweet—not beany or green. 

Related: Is Soy Good Or Bad For You? We Have The Science-Backed Answer