Non-dairy plant-based milks seem to be taking up more and more space on store shelves these days. Indeed, sales of plant milks more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 worldwide as they became increasingly popular. While dairy still makes up the majority of milk sales, consumption has decreased from roughly 0.9 cup per day in 1970 to 0.6 cup per day in 2010, according to the USDA. Why are more and more people reaching for plant milks? What type of milk is best to drink?

First, milk of any kind is not necessary to live a happy and healthy life. If you choose to drink milk, there are many reasons why some prefer plant milks to dairy. Lactose intolerance is very common and makes those affected unable to digest the dairy sugar lactose. Dairy allergy is another reason; milk allergy is one of the eight most common food allergies. Vegans avoid all animal products, including dairy, often for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. Still others prefer the taste of plant milks or simply believe that they are healthier. But are they?

This is a difficult question to answer. There are a myriad of different plant milks. Examples include almond, hazelnut, cashew, coconut, hemp, flax, oat, rice, and soymilk. Their nutritional profiles vary greatly and depend on the plant source, processing, and nutrient fortification.

First, many plant milks are a processed food very much removed from the plants that they are based on. They are largely composed of water, often with small amounts of the actual nut or seed in them. This is especially true for almond milk. One ounce of almonds (about a handful) contains about six grams of protein and three grams of fiber. One cup of almond milk often contains only one gram of protein, and one or less gram of fiber. If your goal is protein or fiber, go for the whole nut and skip the manufactured nut milk.

However, some plant milks do contain more protein. These include pea milks and soymilks, with smaller amounts in oat milks and hemp milks. (There are still some health- effect concerns regarding soy, and oat milk is not a good choice for those with gluten intolerance.) All in all, these are better choices in regard to protein. In terms of biological value, however, dairy milk protein is best. Biological value is how readily proteins in a food can be used for the body’s own protein synthesis.

Plant milks are often fortified with at least some vitamins and minerals because of losses during processing and dilution with water. Nuts and seeds naturally contain many nutrients, such as protein, fiber, calcium (especially in almonds), magnesium, and some healthy fats, many of which are lost in processing. Nutrients that are added to plant milks include calcium and vitamins A, D, E, and B12, among others. (Vitamins A and D are often found in dairy.) Unfortunately, it is unclear what the bioavailability (how much of a nutrient is absorbed and enters circulation) of these added nutrients is at this time. Another unfortunate truth is that many of the nutrients added into fortified foods in general are of inferior quality; they are used because they are cheaper. For example, calcium carbonate is a cheap form and is less well absorbed than the calcium in dairy milk, or other supplemental forms such as citrate, for example. Similarly, vitamin D2 is the form most often used, while D3 is of superior quality.

Other qualities of plant milks to note are sugars and additives. Many plant milks contain added sugar, which is something everyone should be minimizing. Look for unsweetened varieties. Emulsifiers and thickeners are often added, such as guar gum, gellan gum, carrageenan, and xanthan gum. These can lead to digestive upset, and there are some reports that they can cause intestinal inflammation.

Dairy milk is a whole food and a good source of protein, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. The protein in particular contains all of the essential amino acids and has a high biological value. Some avoid dairy because of added hormones, antibiotics, or grain feeding, and confinement operations. This is why choosing local, small-scale, grass-fed operations is key. The milk will be fresher and more nutritious. Having said this, dairy is not for everyone, and plant milks are a reasonable option, especially when combined with an otherwise healthy diet.

If you drink plant milks, choose unsweetened, organic options with as few additives as possible. If you are a vegan, look for added vitamins, minerals, and protein, or choose a high-quality multi-vitamin/mineral supplement. Remember that eating the whole nut or seed is a better option, especially if prepared ahead properly. Another fun and healthy option is to make plant milks at home, which taste delicious. Grass-fed, local dairy is another good option for those who tolerate it. (See my previous article “Maybe It’s Not the Lactose” for more on dairy.) So which milk is best for you? Every person is a unique individual with unique needs. Even the same person may have differing needs at different stages of life. If you are unsure, find a nutrition expert who can help.

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The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.