What to Know About Plant-Based Milk

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 28, 2022
5 min read

In the past, choosing milk used to be pretty easy: the most common varieties included whole, 2%, or skim. Besides people with milk allergies or intolerances, not many people turned to dairy alternatives. 

Today, take a walk down the aisle at the supermarket, and you’ll likely notice that there are now countless plant-based milks as alternatives to cow’s milk. If you’re thinking about making the switch to plant-based milk, here’s what you need to know.

Plant-based milk is an option for people who can’t or don’t want to drink traditional dairy milk harvested from cows, sheep, or goats. Some people turn to plant-based milk due to an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk, including lactose intolerance. These dairy alternatives are also part of a vegan lifestyle since no animal products are used to make them.

There are many reasons why more and more people are choosing plant-based milks. Sales of dairy alternatives reached $21 billion between 2009 and 2015, and over the last five years, the consumption of regular cow’s milk has dropped 13%.

Plant-based milks have been used in cultures around the world for centuries, though. In particular, coconut milk has been used in cooking and ceremonial use in India and Southeast Asia. Documented use of soy milk dates back to 1365 in China. These products are nothing new, but they are seeing a resurgence in popularity due to their many benefits.

There are many different kinds of plant-based milks, and they can usually be grouped by the base material that they’re made from. This includes:

  • Legumes: soy and pea protein
  • Nuts: hazelnut, almond, cashew, walnut, coconut, pistachio
  • Seeds: hemp, sesame, flaxseed
  • Grains: rice, oat, quinoa
  • Fruit: banana

Within these groups, there are many different kinds of milks, including beverages that are sweetened or flavored.

Of all these varieties, the most popular plant-based milks in the US are:

  • Soy
  • Almond
  • Coconut
  • Rice 

While drinking plant-based milks can be a great alternative to dairy, though, be sure to look at the ingredients. To save money on production costs, some manufacturers will add thickeners in order to use less base product and to ensure that the final product isn’t too watery. Look for keywords like natural flavors, sugar, or vitamins and make sure that you’re getting the healthiest product possible.

No matter what the base ingredient is, all plant-based milk is made using the same process. The base material is usually soaked for a number of hours to make it soft and easier to work with. Next, the base is ground into a pulp, strained, and then mixed with water. The end result is mostly water with little of the base plant material left. For most brands, less than 10% of their plant-based milk is made up of the plant material itself.

Many plant-based milk producers will add in extra vitamins and minerals to their beverages. Some might add in flavors like chocolate or vanilla to improve the taste. The amount of added sugars and added nutrients varies greatly from brand to brand. Some add nothing; others add in several different ingredients.

Interestingly, many manufacturers aim to make plant-based milks resemble cow’s milk to appeal to more people. They even keep the word “milk” in the title even though these beverages aren’t really milk.

Drinking plant-based milk can have several benefits. As mentioned, many people turn to plant-based milks as an alternative to dairy when they have allergies or intolerances. 

However, another reason that more and more people are turning to plant beverages is that it’s better for the environment and animals. Plant-based milks are guaranteed to be cruelty-free since no animals are involved in producing them. Otherwise, the source animals can be exploited. Choosing plant-based products ensures that you aren’t harming animals. 

Dairy production also uses up a lot of water and food materials needed in order to raise animals like cows. In fact, 976 gallons of water are needed to create just one gallon of cow milk.

Another benefit of plant-based milk is that it typically has a longer shelf-life than dairy and usually doesn’t need to be refrigerated before use. A longer shelf-life means that retailers have more time to sell the product, which helps to reduce food waste.

So, is plant-based milk healthier, or is cow’s milk still the best choice? When it comes to nutrition, one 8-ounce serving of whole cow’s milk has eight grams of fat and 150 calories. Along with eight grams of protein, one serving also has 13 essential nutrients, including:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin A
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Niacin
  • Riboflavin
  • Phosphorus
  • Iodine
  • Potassium
  • Pantothenic acid

However, most cow’s milk contains saturated fat, along with hormones and antibiotics that are used in the traditional agriculture process.

Plant-based milk offers a healthy alternative. Almond milk, for example, has a creamy texture that’s similar to cow’s milk and packs in healthy servings of vitamin E and calcium. 

Oat milk is very versatile and can be used for drinking or baking. It’s also a good source of vitamin A and vitamin D

Coconut milk is light and sweet and has lots of calcium. You can use it for cooking or drinking.

Soy milk is a go-to choice for a good reason. Considered to be the original plant-based milk, it has eight grams of protein per serving and is usually fortified with vitamin D. Its nutritional content is the most comparable to cow’s milk. 

Hemp milk is fortified with many essential nutrients and doesn’t contain any soy, nuts, or gluten, so it’s a popular choice for people with food sensitivities or allergies. 

Rice milk is full of B vitamins and antioxidants and is low in fat and calories.

There are seemingly limitless options when it comes to plant-based milks. Most are great options if you are looking to help the environment or want to reduce your intake of animal products. Check out nutrition labels, though, to see that there aren’t too many added ingredients and to see if your plant-based milk is fortified with vitamins and minerals.