A few decades ago, nondairy milks were hard to find in grocery stores. These days, almond and other plant-based milks make up 20 percent of the milk market. They appeal to people who have milk allergies or trouble digesting the lactose in dairy milk, as well as people avoiding animal products for ethical or dietary reasons.
Plant-Based Milk Versus Cow Milk
While the specifics vary from type to type, overall, plant-based milks are lower in calories, lower in sugar, and, of course, lactose-free. Aside from soy milk, the nondairy milks listed below contain less protein and more fat than skim milk, and similar amounts of vitamins A and D. All but coconut milk are good sources of calcium, and rice and almond milk are free of saturated fat.
For the sake of comparison, here’s a rundown of the nutritional information for one cup of two percent milk:
- 122 calories
- 8 grams of protein
- 4 grams of fat
Now let’s take a look at different types of dairy milk alternatives.
Different Plant-Based Milks, At-a-Glance
- Made from: ground soybeans (a complete protein) and water.
- Looks like, tastes like: has a creamy color, neutral to slightly beany flavor, and a creamy consistency.
- Nutritional info. for 1 cup, unsweetened: about 80 calories, 7g protein, and 4g fat (plus 40% of your daily calcium).
- Best for: when you want something that’s both creamy and rich in protein. Soy milk has the same amount of protein as dairy milk and also has consistency similar to what whole milk delivers. It’s great in smoothies, cooking, and baking. Along with hemp milk, soy also holds up particularly well in espresso drinks.
- Make it at home: Homemade Soy Milk
- Made from: blending hemp seeds with water, then filtering.
- Looks like, tastes like: it has a beige color, slightly nutty flavor, and a thick, rich consistency.
- Nutritional info. for 1 cup, unsweetened: contains about 70 calories, 2 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat (plus omega-3 fatty acid ALA).
- Best for: when you need to mimic the creamieness of whole milk, or even half and half. It rivals soy milk in richness, so it’s a great alternative for those who have soy allergies. Hemp milk also tends to have a more neutral flavor than soy—perfect for anyone who’s not a soy superfan.
- Make it at home: Happy Hemp Milk
- Made from: rice, water, and a touch of oil.
- Looks like, tastes like: has a soft white color, naturally sweet flavor, thin consistency.
- Nutritional info. for 1 cup, unsweetened: about 113 calories, 1g protein, and 2g fat (plus 25% of your daily calcium).
- Best for: when you want a touch of sweetness to your milk, or you need to use it in large quantities. Rice milk, along with almond milk, tends to be cheaper than soy or hemp milk, so it’s a great option for everyday uses like in cereal, smoothies, in tea, or even to drink with a meal.
- Make it at Home: Rice Milk
Coconut Milk Beverage
- Made from: pressed coconut meat and water.
- Looks like, tastes like: it has a bright white color, hint of coconut flavor, medium body (thicker than bottled coconut water, thinner than canned coconut milk).
- Nutritional info. for 1 cup, unsweetened: about 45 calories, 0g protein, and 4.5g fat (most of it saturated)
- Best for: while the coconut flavor in boxed coconut milk is very mild compared to it’s canned counterpoint, it is still more pronounced than the flavors of the other milks. So coconut milk is best used with like or complimentary flavors. It’s a little thicker than almond and rice milk, but not quite as thick as soy or hemp, so is a great consistency for pouring into cereal or drinking with a dessert.
- Make it at home: Coconut Milk
- Made from: soaked ground nuts and water, as are cashew, hazelnut, and other nut milks.
- Looks like, tastes like: it has a pale beige color, light nut flavor, and while it’s thickness varies by brand, it tends to be more in line with the consistency of rice milk, as opposed to soy, hemp, and coconut milk.
- Nutritional info. for 1 cup, unsweetened: about 39 calories, 2g protein, and 3g fat (plus 50% of your daily calcium).
- Best for: almond milk is a great go-to for keeping things lean—it has the lowest number of calories in the bunch. And as mentioned above, almond and rice milk are typically the least expensive of all the plant-based milks, so it’s great for everyday uses.
- Make it at home: See step-by-step instructions below.
Making Nut Milks, Step-By-Step
Here's a walk-through of the process of making almond milk, using this recipe: Homemade Vanilla Almond Milk. This process works for most all nut milks.
Place almonds and vanilla bean in a medium bowl. Add enough filtered water to cover almonds completely, cover, and soak at room temperature 8 to 12 hours. Soak dates in a separate bowl. Soaking the almonds makes them more digestible and enhances their nutritional potency. Drain and discard the soaking water from the almonds. Rinse thoroughly. Keep the date water to add to the almond milk, if desired.
Add soaked almonds, vanilla bean, dates, sea salt, and 3 cups of the water to a blender. Blend on high for 1 minute. Turn off the blender and let the foam subside, then add more water. You might not use all 32 ounces of water, depending on the capacity of your blender. Add the soaking water from the dates for a little extra sweetness, if desired. Blend again for 1 minute.
Place nut milk bag in a quart-size measuring cup or large bowl. Pour blended almond milk into the bag, and lift to drain. Gently squeeze and twist the bag to extract as much liquid as possible. Save the almond meal (see below).
- This basic process works for any nut milk: almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, etc.
- Soaking the nuts is a must to make them more nutritious and easier to digest.
- Adding the dates for sweetness is purely optional. You could also use agave syrup or honey, or leave out the sweetness altogether.
- You can purchase a reusable nut milk bag online or at a kitchen store. Straining the milk through a fine-mesh strainer or several layers of cheesecloth will also work, but the nut milk bag gives you a smoother finished product.
- Save and dry the almond meal for baking or adding to oatmeal. Spread it on a lined baking sheet and pop it in the oven at the lowest setting until it’s dry. It might take 3 or 4 hours. Then whirl it through the blender or food processor until you like the texture.
- Guess what? You don’t need a super-powerful blender to make almond milk. I used my ordinary un-fancy blender, and got great results.
Q: Can plant-based milks be used instead of dairy milk in recipes?
A: In many cases, yes! Most plant-based milks work well in desserts and other dishes with a sweet edge, such as pancakes or curries. For baked goods, use the same amount of plant milk in place of low-fat or nonfat dairy milk. (If a recipe calls for whole dairy milk, you may need to mix a teaspoon or two of oil or another fat into each cup of plant milk to get similar thickness and body.) For general cooking, it’s smart to sample your particular plant milk both heated and chilled, and consider its flavor—nutty, fruity, sweet, beany, roasted, cooked?—before using it as a substitution in a recipe.
Q: How long do nondairy milks keep?
A: Those purchased from the refrigerated section are best within seven to 10 days of opening and should be kept in the fridge and consumed by the package’s use-by date. Unopened shelf-stable milks keep for months in a cool, dry place—check the best-by or sell-by date on the label. Once opened, they’ll keep seven to 10 days in the fridge. Freezing generally is not recommended because it can change the milk’s consistency.
Q: What, and how common, is lactose intolerance?
A: Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in dairy milk that gets processed by an enzyme in our intestines called lactase. Many people have a low number of lactase enzymes, which means they get unpleasant digestive effects when they consume significant amounts of milk. Lactose intolerance varies by race. It’s believed that genetic changes thousands of years ago made it easier for Caucasians in northern countries to digest milk because they needed the nutrients to tolerate colder climates. Now an estimated 15 percent of Caucasians are lactose-intolerant, compared to more than 70 percent of African-Americans and more than 90 percent of people with East Asian ancestry. Most who are lactose-intolerant can have about a cup of milk a day with few problems. Some also take a lactase supplement before drinking milk or eating dairy foods to improve digestion.