Got milk? These days, there's a good chance you're stocking plant-based varieties, along with—or instead of—dairy. After all, 49 percent of Americans now consume non-dairy milks, including 68 percent of parents and 54 percent of children younger than 18. In the past few years, the alt milk choices have broadened beyond soy, almond, and coconut milks to also encompass hazelnut, cashew, flax, quinoa, hemp, and even pea, banana, and tiger nut!
Why should you try these milks, if you haven't already? According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), 1-2 percent of young children and 0.2-0.4 percent of the general population in the United States are allergic to casein, the protein in dairy. Even more people have a reduced ability to tolerate lactose, or the naturally-occurring sugar in milk, after infancy.
Even if you can tolerate dairy well, you may find plant-based milks to be a healthy choice for you and your family. They're free of cholesterol and hormones, and if you're vegan, paleo, or kosher, these milks will likely be a staple in your kitchen. Bonus: many of them taste terrific and add unique flavors to smoothies or other recipes.
But, it's important to be aware of a few potential pitfalls. Most non-dairy milks are not a one-to-one nutritional swap with cow's milk. Only a few varieties offer as much protein or calcium. Other types can be loaded with added sugars. Always look for the word "unsweetened" on the package, as "original" products usually include added sugar (the exception are banana milks, which currently do not come unsweetened). Cow's milk does contain sugar, but it's naturally-occurring—not added—so not a cause for concern according to most dietitians.
Although plant-based milks tend to be lumped together, they're quite distinct in flavor and nutrition. To clarify the differences, here's a round-up of commonly available plain unsweetened types (including 2 percent cow's milk, as a baseline), with nutritional stats per 8-ounce cup. The ingredients in different brands vary, so there are ranges in some of the nutritional information.
2 percent Cow's Milk
Nutrition: 130 calories, 12-13 grams sugar (natural, not added), 8 grams protein
Flavor and use: Sweet, milky, creamy flavor. Versatile.
Nutrition: 80 calories, 0-1 gram sugar (natural, not added), 7 grams protein
Flavor and use: The most similar to cow's milk, with a creaminess and subtle bean flavor. (Related: Is Soy Safe for Kids?)
Nutrition: 10-120 calories, 10-13 grams sugar (natural, not added), scant gram protein
Flavor and use:Naturally sweet. Terrific solo or in crepes, oatmeal, and smoothies.
Nutrition: 30-40 calories, 0 grams sugar, 1-1.5 grams protein
Flavor and use:Neutral, with faint sweet nuttiness. Very versatile. Terrific in cereal, smoothies, soups, and baking; and solo.
Nutrition: 24-36 calories, 0 grams sugar, 0-1 grams protein
Flavor and use:Neutral, with faint smoky-nutty flavor. Very versatile. Terrific in stews and cream sauces; and solo.
Coconut Milk Beverage
Nutrition: 46-60 calories, 0 grams sugar, 0-1 grams protein
Flavor and use: Sweet, rich coconut flavor. Try in smoothies, soups, baked goods, coffee drinks, and solo. Note that coconut milk beverage is found in cartons near the other non-dairy milks. Canned coconut milk, which is much higher in fat and calories, in best for dairy-free ice and whipped creams and curries.
Pea Milk (such as Bolthouse Farms Unsweetened and Ripple brand Original Unsweetened)
Nutrition: 110 calories, 0 grams sugar, 12 grams protein
Flavor and use: Neutral flavor and creamy texture. Try wherever you'd use cow's milk.
Banana Milk (WhiteWave Sir Bananas and Fresh Start Banana Wave brands, no unsweetened option)
Nutrition: 150-170 calories, 18-24 grams sugar (some added), 4-7 grams protein
Flavor and use: Creamy, sweet, banana-bread taste. Try in smoothies, banana bread, and oatmeal; and solo. Because of the added sugars, think of this variety like chocolate milk—more of a treat than a daily staple.
Nutrition: 70-79 calories, 0 grams sugar, 2-3 grams protein
Flavor and use: Nutty, slightly bitter and grassy flavor. Try in strongly-flavored dishes and baked goods, such as brownies.
Beyond the basic products, many plant-based milks (such as almond) come in versions fortified with added protein or reduced in fat (in the case of soy). Increasingly, you'll also find blends, such as soy-coconut or multi-grain. So whether it's cashew or rice, soy or pea, or some other variety altogether, get the facts, drink up, and show off those (non-dairy) milk mustaches.
Dina Cheney is the author of The New Milks; 100-Plus Dairy-Free Recipes for Making and Cooking with Soy, Nut, Seed, Grain, and Coconut Milks. For more information about non-dairy milks visit her website.