back to top

Curious About All Those Dairy-Free Milks? Here's A Helpful Guide

Let's talk about nutrition, taste, and sustainability.

Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

It seems like they'll milk anything these days. Oats? Milked. Hemp? Milked. Almonds? Tbh, I barely remember a time when they weren't synonymous with milk.

Beyond being a phenomenon that’s apparently causing Big Dairy to go into meltdown (lol), the huge variety of dairy-free “milks” also makes for a confusing shopping experience — even if you actively want to find a new milk substitute, it can be hard to know where to start.So, I spoke to Jessica Jones, RD and co-founder of Food Heaven Made Easy, and Ryan D. Andrews, RD, and author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating about the pros and cons of a bunch of dairy-free milks, including nutrition, environment (think of the bees!), and taste. Hopefully you leave this post feeling informed and ready to try something new — or just feel satisfied sticking to your old faithful. First things first: Both Jones and Andrews recommend going for unsweetened and unflavored versions of every dairy-free milk. “I typically recommend going for products that have a simple list of ingredients. Think of ingredients that, for the most part, you can pronounce and recognize,” says Jones. “And always opt for the unsweetened variety, to avoid added sugars.” That said, if the whole reason you want to buy a milk is for the extra sweetness or vanilla flavor — you do you! But if you’re looking for drink to replace dairy milk, keeping your ingredient list short and not-sweet is the best way to go.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Beyond being a phenomenon that’s apparently causing Big Dairy to go into meltdown (lol), the huge variety of dairy-free “milks” also makes for a confusing shopping experience — even if you actively want to find a new milk substitute, it can be hard to know where to start.

So, I spoke to Jessica Jones, RD and co-founder of Food Heaven Made Easy, and Ryan D. Andrews, RD, and author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating about the pros and cons of a bunch of dairy-free milks, including nutrition, environment (think of the bees!), and taste. Hopefully you leave this post feeling informed and ready to try something new — or just feel satisfied sticking to your old faithful.

First things first: Both Jones and Andrews recommend going for unsweetened and unflavored versions of every dairy-free milk. “I typically recommend going for products that have a simple list of ingredients. Think of ingredients that, for the most part, you can pronounce and recognize,” says Jones. “And always opt for the unsweetened variety, to avoid added sugars.” That said, if the whole reason you want to buy a milk is for the extra sweetness or vanilla flavor — you do you! But if you’re looking for drink to replace dairy milk, keeping your ingredient list short and not-sweet is the best way to go.

No matter what milk you choose, it’s important to consider your dietary requirements and sensitivities, as well as how nutritious each product is.

“There's an obvious benefit or detriment to any one of these milks when considering food intolerance and sensitivity. If someone is allergic to tree nuts, then almond milk is a bad idea. If someone doesn't tolerate quinoa milk, then quinoa milk is a bad idea. And so forth,” says Andrews. When it comes to nutrition, both Jones and Andrews suggest thinking about your own personal dietary needs before shopping. For example, if you’re diabetic, Jones would recommend choosing unsweetened almond milk. Similarly, if you’re already getting a lot of the thing that’s being “milked” in your diet — say, quinoa, flax, or bananas — Andrews suggests steering clear of that milk, and using this as an opportunity to diversify your diet.
Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash

“There's an obvious benefit or detriment to any one of these milks when considering food intolerance and sensitivity. If someone is allergic to tree nuts, then almond milk is a bad idea. If someone doesn't tolerate quinoa milk, then quinoa milk is a bad idea. And so forth,” says Andrews.

When it comes to nutrition, both Jones and Andrews suggest thinking about your own personal dietary needs before shopping. For example, if you’re diabetic, Jones would recommend choosing unsweetened almond milk. Similarly, if you’re already getting a lot of the thing that’s being “milked” in your diet — say, quinoa, flax, or bananas — Andrews suggests steering clear of that milk, and using this as an opportunity to diversify your diet.

That make sense? Kinda? Well, here’s everything you need to know about all the different dairy-free milks on the market right now:

FYI, the nutritional information in this post was sourced from the United States Department of Agriculture branded food products database, Nutritionix, and MyFoodDiary. Because there are so many brands of dairy-free milk on the market, this info may slightly differ from brand to brand, so feel free to use this as a light reference point. Oh, and all nutritional information in this post is given per 100ml of unsweetened and unflavored milk.

1. Almond milk

Calories: 42Protein: 0.42gFat: 1.04g Carbs: 7.92g Sugar: 7.50gFiber: 0.4gIf you read any kind of “healthy eating” content between 2010 and 2015, you definitely would have come across the ol’ “snack on a handful of almonds” advice. And while that life hack is extremely tired, the principle behind it remains: Almonds are a great source of beneficial fats, proteins, and fiber. When it comes to almond milk, however, things are slightly different, since the water that turns these nuts into “milk” dilutes the nuts’ nutrients, removing some of the nutritional value. “Almond milk offers beneficial fats and a light taste,” says Andrews. “However, it doesn’t offer much overall nutrition, as store-bought versions are mainly made up of water.” When it comes to almond milks — and actually all tree nut-based milks — it’s also worth considering the environmental impact involved in farming and production. Almonds, for example, rely on the mass transportation bees to pollinate trees, which can be extremely harmful to their wellbeing, and require a pretty astonishing amount of water (1.1 gallons for every almond!).
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 42

Protein: 0.42g

Fat: 1.04g

Carbs: 7.92g

Sugar: 7.50g

Fiber: 0.4g

If you read any kind of “healthy eating” content between 2010 and 2015, you definitely would have come across the ol’ “snack on a handful of almonds” advice. And while that life hack is extremely tired, the principle behind it remains: Almonds are a great source of beneficial fats, proteins, and fiber. When it comes to almond milk, however, things are slightly different, since the water that turns these nuts into “milk” dilutes the nuts’ nutrients, removing some of the nutritional value. “Almond milk offers beneficial fats and a light taste,” says Andrews. “However, it doesn’t offer much overall nutrition, as store-bought versions are mainly made up of water.”

When it comes to almond milks — and actually all tree nut-based milks — it’s also worth considering the environmental impact involved in farming and production. Almonds, for example, rely on the mass transportation bees to pollinate trees, which can be extremely harmful to their wellbeing, and require a pretty astonishing amount of water (1.1 gallons for every almond!).

2. Walnut milk

Calories: 33.3Protein: 0.6gFat: 2.8gCarbs: 1.7gSugar: 0gFiber: 0g “Walnuts are one of the most notable plant sources of omega-3 fats, which most people aren't getting enough of,” says Andrews. However, if the environmental cost of tree nut milks is a little concerning to you, there are better milk options that will suit your nutritional needs just as well.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 33.3

Protein: 0.6g

Fat: 2.8g

Carbs: 1.7g

Sugar: 0g

Fiber: 0g

“Walnuts are one of the most notable plant sources of omega-3 fats, which most people aren't getting enough of,” says Andrews. However, if the environmental cost of tree nut milks is a little concerning to you, there are better milk options that will suit your nutritional needs just as well.

3. Macadamia milk

Calories: 25Protein: 0gFat: 1.46gCarbs: 3.33gSugar: 2.92g Fiber: 0gIf you’re imagining macadamia nut milk to taste like, you know, macadamias...it doesn’t. Sorry! While it does have that creamy consistency you’d expect, the taste itself is extremely mild. Nutritionally, this nut milk is super similar to the other nut milks on the market so there’s not much more you need to know here.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 25

Protein: 0g

Fat: 1.46g

Carbs: 3.33g

Sugar: 2.92g

Fiber: 0g

If you’re imagining macadamia nut milk to taste like, you know, macadamias...it doesn’t. Sorry! While it does have that creamy consistency you’d expect, the taste itself is extremely mild. Nutritionally, this nut milk is super similar to the other nut milks on the market so there’s not much more you need to know here.

4. Hazelnut milk

Calories: 46Protein: 0.8gFa: 1.5gCarbs: 8gSugar: 5.9gFiber: 0.4gYet another nut milk! Hazelnut milk is again pretty similar to its other nutty friends in that, while delicious, it doesn’t offer a ton of nutrients. And again, be wary of added sugars when buying this milk from the store.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 46

Protein: 0.8g

Fa: 1.5g

Carbs: 8g

Sugar: 5.9g

Fiber: 0.4g

Yet another nut milk! Hazelnut milk is again pretty similar to its other nutty friends in that, while delicious, it doesn’t offer a ton of nutrients. And again, be wary of added sugars when buying this milk from the store.

5. Cashew milk

Calories: 23Protein: 1gFat: 1gCarbs: 3gSugar: 2gFiber: 0g“All tree nuts contain a mix of beneficial fats,” says Andrews. That said, there’s nothing particularly special about cashew milk when compared to almond, walnut, or macadamia. (Sorry, cashews!) This milk also has an extremely mild flavor — which could be a good or bad thing depending on what you want from your milk — and has a consistency that’s actually pretty similar to cow’s milk.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 23

Protein: 1g

Fat: 1g

Carbs: 3g

Sugar: 2g

Fiber: 0g

“All tree nuts contain a mix of beneficial fats,” says Andrews. That said, there’s nothing particularly special about cashew milk when compared to almond, walnut, or macadamia. (Sorry, cashews!) This milk also has an extremely mild flavor — which could be a good or bad thing depending on what you want from your milk — and has a consistency that’s actually pretty similar to cow’s milk.

6. Soy milk

Calories: 33Protein: 2.92gFat: 1.67gCarbs: 1.67gSugar: 0.42gFiber: 0.4g“Legumes in general offer a lot of nutritional bang for your buck,” says Andrews. “You get some beneficial fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Also, when grown under certain conditions, soy can be a more environmentally efficient form of milk than most others, including nut and cow's milk.” However, soy — especially a high consumption of soy — is slightly controversial. As Harvard School Of Health puts it: “Soy is exalted as a health food by some, with claims of taming hot flashes, warding off osteoporosis, and protecting against hormonal cancers like breast and prostate. At the same time, soy is shunned by others for fear that it may cause breast cancer, thyroid problems, and dementia.” Because there’s so much conflicting research when it comes to soy, Andrew recommends considering how much soy you’re drinking and eating (think: a splash of soy milk in your morning coffee vs. eating a ton of soy-based products most days), which he suggests you do with any food that dominates your diet. If soy products make up a huge part of your diet, it could be wise to opt for a different milk substitute, if only to diversify the nutrients you’re taking in.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 33

Protein: 2.92g

Fat: 1.67g

Carbs: 1.67g

Sugar: 0.42g

Fiber: 0.4g

“Legumes in general offer a lot of nutritional bang for your buck,” says Andrews. “You get some beneficial fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Also, when grown under certain conditions, soy can be a more environmentally efficient form of milk than most others, including nut and cow's milk.” However, soy — especially a high consumption of soy — is slightly controversial. As Harvard School Of Health puts it: “Soy is exalted as a health food by some, with claims of taming hot flashes, warding off osteoporosis, and protecting against hormonal cancers like breast and prostate. At the same time, soy is shunned by others for fear that it may cause breast cancer, thyroid problems, and dementia.”

Because there’s so much conflicting research when it comes to soy, Andrew recommends considering how much soy you’re drinking and eating (think: a splash of soy milk in your morning coffee vs. eating a ton of soy-based products most days), which he suggests you do with any food that dominates your diet. If soy products make up a huge part of your diet, it could be wise to opt for a different milk substitute, if only to diversify the nutrients you’re taking in.

7. Oat milk

Calories: 42Protein: 0gFat: 2gCarbs: 7gSugar: 3gFiber: 1gIs it just me or is literally everyone talking about oat milk at the moment? Easily made at home with a blender and nut milk bag, oat milk is a tasty and actually creamy alternative to both dairy and almond milk in coffee, smoothies, and some recipes. But when it comes to the milk’s nutritional value, don’t assume that a cup of oat milk is giving your body the same fiber-y goodness as a bowl of oats, because of lot of nutrients are lost in the milking process. And while oat milk is a great milk alternative for people who are dairy- or nut-free, people who have gluten intolerance or sensitivity should beware — because even though oats are gluten-free, they’re often processed using the same equipment as grains, which could lead to cross-contamination. If you are gluten-free, look for oat milk products that are certified gluten-free, or try making your own milk at home.Another area of concern, according to Andrews, is the treatment of oats with pesticides. The USDA Pesticide Data Program has found seven different pesticide residues on oats, three of which are poisonous to our close friends, the bees. While this isn’t necessarily a huge health risk, it’s good to be aware of, especially if you plan on drinking a LOT of oat milk in the near future.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 42

Protein: 0g

Fat: 2g

Carbs: 7g

Sugar: 3g

Fiber: 1g

Is it just me or is literally everyone talking about oat milk at the moment? Easily made at home with a blender and nut milk bag, oat milk is a tasty and actually creamy alternative to both dairy and almond milk in coffee, smoothies, and some recipes. But when it comes to the milk’s nutritional value, don’t assume that a cup of oat milk is giving your body the same fiber-y goodness as a bowl of oats, because of lot of nutrients are lost in the milking process. And while oat milk is a great milk alternative for people who are dairy- or nut-free, people who have gluten intolerance or sensitivity should beware — because even though oats are gluten-free, they’re often processed using the same equipment as grains, which could lead to cross-contamination. If you are gluten-free, look for oat milk products that are certified gluten-free, or try making your own milk at home.

Another area of concern, according to Andrews, is the treatment of oats with pesticides. The USDA Pesticide Data Program has found seven different pesticide residues on oats, three of which are poisonous to our close friends, the bees. While this isn’t necessarily a huge health risk, it’s good to be aware of, especially if you plan on drinking a LOT of oat milk in the near future.

8. Coconut milk

Calories: 165Protein: 2.53gFat: 13.92g Carbs: 5.06Sugar: 3.80gFiber: 0gOf all the dairy-free milk options, coconut milk has the highest amount of fats. If that sounds like a problem to you, know that these fats are medium chain saturated fatty acids, which may actually help your body protect itself from viruses and infections. “Though some people would argue that the saturated fats in coconut milk might present negative outcomes with cardiovascular health, this is a lot less likely of an issue if your diet is made up of mostly unprocessed foods, and overall fat intake is balanced — e.g. you eat equal amounts of unsaturated and saturated fats,” says Andrews.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 165

Protein: 2.53g

Fat: 13.92g

Carbs: 5.06

Sugar: 3.80g

Fiber: 0g

Of all the dairy-free milk options, coconut milk has the highest amount of fats. If that sounds like a problem to you, know that these fats are medium chain saturated fatty acids, which may actually help your body protect itself from viruses and infections. “Though some people would argue that the saturated fats in coconut milk might present negative outcomes with cardiovascular health, this is a lot less likely of an issue if your diet is made up of mostly unprocessed foods, and overall fat intake is balanced — e.g. you eat equal amounts of unsaturated and saturated fats,” says Andrews.

9. Hemp milk

Calories: 26.8gProtein: 0.6gFat: 2.7gCarbs: 0.1gSugar: 0.1gFiber: 0.2gHemp has a well-deserved reputation as a highly sustainable and eco-friendly crop, so if you're into caring about the planet — or are just now low-key alarmed by the amount of water almond trees require to grow — this might be the milk for you! Hemp seeds also have a ton of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which can help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 26.8g

Protein: 0.6g

Fat: 2.7g

Carbs: 0.1g

Sugar: 0.1g

Fiber: 0.2g

Hemp has a well-deserved reputation as a highly sustainable and eco-friendly crop, so if you're into caring about the planet — or are just now low-key alarmed by the amount of water almond trees require to grow — this might be the milk for you! Hemp seeds also have a ton of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which can help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol.

10. Rice milk

Calories: 55.2Protein: 1.5gFat: 1.2gCarbs: 9.6gSugar: 6gFiber: 0.2gCompared to other dairy-free milks, rice milk has the highest amount of carbohydrates per serving. It’s also relatively low protein, so if you’re looking for a close replacement for dairy milk, this probably isn’t it. BTW, if you’re thinking of adding rice milk to an already high-in-rice diet, our experts say it’s also good to be aware of potentially high levels of arsenic. “Arsenic was applied to crops in the ‘70s to control pests, and it accumulated in the soil. Now, it often turns up in rice,” says Andrews. “If someone is consuming whole rice, rice crackers, rice protein powder, and/or rice flour, then they should be concerned about getting too much arsenic in their body.” You can find more information about arsenic in rice products here.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 55.2

Protein: 1.5g

Fat: 1.2g

Carbs: 9.6g

Sugar: 6g

Fiber: 0.2g

Compared to other dairy-free milks, rice milk has the highest amount of carbohydrates per serving. It’s also relatively low protein, so if you’re looking for a close replacement for dairy milk, this probably isn’t it. BTW, if you’re thinking of adding rice milk to an already high-in-rice diet, our experts say it’s also good to be aware of potentially high levels of arsenic. “Arsenic was applied to crops in the ‘70s to control pests, and it accumulated in the soil. Now, it often turns up in rice,” says Andrews. “If someone is consuming whole rice, rice crackers, rice protein powder, and/or rice flour, then they should be concerned about getting too much arsenic in their body.” You can find more information about arsenic in rice products here.

11. Quinoa milk

Calories: 28.8Protein: 1gFat: 0.5gCarbs: 5.2gSugar: 0.2gFiber: 0.7g“To get the most nutrition from quinoa, you’re probably better off eating it whole,” says Andrews. As with other kinds of dairy-free milks, the process in which they’re made seriously dilutes nutrients. Also, heads up, quinoa milk actually does taste a lot like quinoa, so take that into consideration before you invest in a carton.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 28.8

Protein: 1g

Fat: 0.5g

Carbs: 5.2g

Sugar: 0.2g

Fiber: 0.7g

“To get the most nutrition from quinoa, you’re probably better off eating it whole,” says Andrews. As with other kinds of dairy-free milks, the process in which they’re made seriously dilutes nutrients. Also, heads up, quinoa milk actually does taste a lot like quinoa, so take that into consideration before you invest in a carton.

12. Pea milk

Calories: 54Protein: 3.33gFat: 1.88gCarbs: 6.25gSugar: 6.25gFiber: 0gMade from yellow peas, this drink is surprisingly creamy and tastes similarly to almond milk. “Americans consume a staggeringly low amount of legumes (just seven pounds per person, per year!), so I'm in favor of any method to boost intake, including pea milk,” says Andrews. As with all dairy-free milks, it’s worth keeping an eye out for unnecessary added sugars.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 54

Protein: 3.33g

Fat: 1.88g

Carbs: 6.25g

Sugar: 6.25g

Fiber: 0g

Made from yellow peas, this drink is surprisingly creamy and tastes similarly to almond milk. “Americans consume a staggeringly low amount of legumes (just seven pounds per person, per year!), so I'm in favor of any method to boost intake, including pea milk,” says Andrews. As with all dairy-free milks, it’s worth keeping an eye out for unnecessary added sugars.

13. Plant-protein milk

Calories: 51Protein: 3.4gFat: 3.4gCarbs: 1.7gSugar: 0.9gFiber: 0.2gAs its name suggests this milk is filled with — you guessed it — plant-based pea protein! This milk actually has a really similar amount of calories and protein to straight pea milk, but has a substantial amount less carbs and sugar. If you eat a primarily meat-free or vegan diet, this milk could be an easy way to get some extra protein in your diet.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 51

Protein: 3.4g

Fat: 3.4g

Carbs: 1.7g

Sugar: 0.9g

Fiber: 0.2g

As its name suggests this milk is filled with — you guessed it — plant-based pea protein! This milk actually has a really similar amount of calories and protein to straight pea milk, but has a substantial amount less carbs and sugar. If you eat a primarily meat-free or vegan diet, this milk could be an easy way to get some extra protein in your diet.

14. Flax milk

Calories: 21.1Protein: 0gFat: 1.1gCarbs: 3gSugar: 3gFiber: 0gIf you’re already eating a lot of flax — in your morning smoothie or oatmeal, for example — adding a flax milk into your diet might not be the best idea, as flaxseeds are extremely high in fiber, an excess of which can lead to bloating, constipation, and stomach pain. That said, flax is incredibly nutrient dense, says Andrews. So, if you’re not already getting flax in your diet, it could be a very wise idea to put this milk on rotation.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 21.1

Protein: 0g

Fat: 1.1g

Carbs: 3g

Sugar: 3g

Fiber: 0g

If you’re already eating a lot of flax — in your morning smoothie or oatmeal, for example — adding a flax milk into your diet might not be the best idea, as flaxseeds are extremely high in fiber, an excess of which can lead to bloating, constipation, and stomach pain. That said, flax is incredibly nutrient dense, says Andrews. So, if you’re not already getting flax in your diet, it could be a very wise idea to put this milk on rotation.

15. Banana milk

Calories: 25.4Protein: 0.4gFat: 1.3gCarbs: 3gSugar: 1.3gFiber: 0.4gOh yes, bananas are now milk too! This drink is very simply made using ripe bananas and water, with the option of adding vanilla. Like nut and oat milks, if you’re looking to this milk for nutritional value, you’d be much better off eating an actual banana than drinking a glass of this milk. That said, this milk is sweet (like a light banana-flavored milk!) and is super cheap and easy to make.
Victoria Reyes / BuzzFeed

Calories: 25.4

Protein: 0.4g

Fat: 1.3g

Carbs: 3g

Sugar: 1.3g

Fiber: 0.4g

Oh yes, bananas are now milk too! This drink is very simply made using ripe bananas and water, with the option of adding vanilla. Like nut and oat milks, if you’re looking to this milk for nutritional value, you’d be much better off eating an actual banana than drinking a glass of this milk. That said, this milk is sweet (like a light banana-flavored milk!) and is super cheap and easy to make.

Soooo, in conclusion...

- If you're trying to be conscious of how your food and drink choices impact the environment, nut milks might not be the best choice for you.

- Soy milk is a great nutritional all-rounder, but if your diet includes a ton of soy products, it would be worth reading some of the pro- and anti-soy research linked to above.

- Oat milk is an incredibly tasty dairy substitute a lot of people swear by.

- This stuff is really complicated! And ultimately, your choice comes down to your body and your priorities, so it would be impossible for us to make a recommendation that would suit everyone. Choose the milk that makes the most sense for you and your needs!

Get more from Goodful on Instagram and YouTube!

Top trending videos

Watch more BuzzFeed Video Caret right