Dairy alternatives are in the spotlight. Never have choices been so plentiful, so appealing, so … intimidating. Picking up milk used to mean deciding between a quart and a gallon. Now, it requires a deep understanding of the difference between tree nuts and groundnuts, the risks of genetically modified soy and the various benefits of oat milk — that is, if your store has the wildly popular beverage in stock.
Around 50 percent of Americans surveyed by agricultural brand Cargill say they swill alternative milks — a market that is estimated to reach $35.06 billion by 2024, as brands begin to produce a wider variety of beverages and more Americans go dairy-free. It is option overload, but according to registered dietician Maya Feller, making a decision is not as hard as you might think. The drinks do have different nutritional qualities — some are higher in protein, while others are fortified with certain vitamins — but all it takes to make a healthy choice is a quick glance at the ingredient list.
“I generally tell my patients to look for a plain, unsweetened alternative that’s free from lab-made fats, hydrogenated fats, dyes, carrageenan, artificial stabilizers and preservatives,” says Feller. If there is anything that sounds unfamiliar or particularly scientific, you might want to choose another option. If you are concerned with getting the same vitamins and minerals you would get from dairy milk, look for an alternative that is fortified with vitamin B12 and calcium.
Years ago, most people who avoided dairy did so because of a lactose intolerance or dairy allergy. Now, says Feller, people tend to look for alternatives due to a vegan or paleo diet, detox program or because they believe dairy to be unhealthy. Nut-, grain- and legume-based milks, on the other hand, tend to fit into most diets.
“I like to remind my patients to think about why they are choosing any food or beverage,” says Feller. “Whether it’s because of an intolerance or a personal choice, it’s still important to be an informed consumer and make the choice that best supports your health as well as your individual desires.”
Below, our guide to the alternative milk aisle.
Almond milk is the most common dairy alternative — for good reason. Americans consumed roughly $1 billion worth of almond milk in 2018, compared a soy milk market of only $230 million. The blend is creamy, fairly neutral in flavor, and low in calories (most brands clock in at 40 calories per serving) and fat. Just reach for a version made without too many fillers and emulsifiers, such as carrageenan, which some believe can cause digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome. Then, look for almonds at the top of an ingredients list. “There was a review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, in 2017, that found that some almond milks didn’t actually contain as many almonds as the consumer thought,” says Feller. If you are drinking it for the nut’s vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, you might be better blending up your own at home.
2018’s alterna-milk darling, oat milk is so popular that Oatly, the most popular producer, had to ration its supply. The thick beverage holds its own in cappuccinos and lattes better than other alternatives, and is relatively healthy, says Feller. “Oat milk may have some cholesterol-lowering effects that can be attributed to beta-glucans, and you’ll also get a bit of protein.” It is also free from common allergens such as nuts and soy.
TIGER NUT MILK
Tiger nuts are small, tuberous rhizomes of a sedge grass (cyperus esculentus lativum). “Tiger nuts are a significant source of prebiotics due to their resistant starch content,” says Feller. “Prebiotics are undigestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics, which are so important for a healthy gut microbiome. Resistant starches also aid in blood sugar regulation, and the fiber plays a role in regulating hunger and satiety.” Tiger nuts are nutrient-rich, providing vitamins C and E as well as heart-healthy fats.
Find it from British brand Rude Health or blend up store-bought tiger nuts with water to create your own version.
This silky, legume-based drink tends to get a bad rap — it is either so earthy-crunchy as to be undesirable, or dangerously full of hormone-altering properties. In reality? It is a protein-packed beverage that is typically fine in moderation. “In the U.S., the majority of our soy comes from genetically modified sources, so for those concerned I would suggest opting for the organic option,” says Feller. Try it with cereal or oatmeal, or in a creamy coffee drink.
MACADAMIA NUT MILK
Popularized by alterna-milk brand Milkadamia, the creamy, nutty milk is popping up everywhere from Whole Foods to NYC’s Cha Cha Matcha. “Macadamia nuts provide magnesium, B vitamins, iron and calcium,” says Feller.
“I’m completely biased because I love coconut milk and cook with it,” says Feller. That said, she steers clear of any canned coconut milk with fillers like guar gum, she says, “which can cause gastrointestinal distress for some.” Bear in mind that coconut milk tends to be calorically dense and packed with saturated fats, which has been linked to heart disease. But when consumed a few times a week, says Feller, the milk can boost both the flavor and nutritional profile of drinks and dishes.
Allergic to nuts? Give rice milk a try. Made from milled rice and water, the drink is typically fortified with the same vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D and calcium, that you would find in a glass of the regular dairy product. The taste can be a little mild and the mouthfeel a little thin, so experiment with brands to find an option that works for you. Feller is partial to Rice Dream, which is organic and comes in an unsweetened variety.