Milk void of dairy is a huge market. Consider that in 2018, traditional milk sales dropped by 4% and non-dairy milk saw an 8% increase. The OG of this category, almond milk, is also no longer the sole bearer to the non-dairy throne. Oats, cashews, and coconut have all since been milk-ified, leaving consumers with more options than ever before. As a mom who regularly stocks the fridge with three different types of non-dairy milk to make the whole family happy, I wanted to learn if there might be a better option.
Oat Milk Vs. Almond Milk (And Other Kinds)
According to Forbes, oat milk is now top of the heap. Not only is oat milk now offered in Starbucks, but this vegan milk is being turned into ice cream and yogurt. There are a few factors that are driving oat milk’s popularity. The first: Baristas. Oat milk reportedly froths better than almond or soy non-dairy milk (which has been losing some of its luster thanks to its plant compound, phytoestrogens), particularly the special barista blends. It also doesn’t separate or clump when added to coffee, and its neutral taste doesn’t get in the way of other flavors.
Another selling point for oat milk is that it appears to be more environmentally friendly. It takes 290 gallons of water to grow a pound of oats. That sounds like a lot, but not when you consider that a single almond requires 1.1 gallons of water and that California’s almond supply uses as much water in a year as Califonia does in three. Oats also contend with weeds better, so they require less herbicide than other crops.
Related Link: Almonds: Food of the Week
How Does Oat Milk Stack Up, Nutritionally?
As with many foods, what to eat depends on your personal goals, says Anne L’Heureux, head of Spartan Nutrition and a registered dietitian nutritionist as well as a Spartan SGX coach. Here are a few key factors to consider:
Calories and Protein
“Plant-based milks draw in some people who are looking to watch their waistline with a lower calorie amount per serving,” notes L’Heureux. And it’s true that unsweetened almond, cashew, and coconut milk have significantly fewer calories than cow’s milk – about 30-60 calories per cup compared to 124 calories in a cup of 2% dairy milk. (Oat milk is actually more comparable to cow’s milk at about 90-120 calories per unsweetened cup.)
But beware, one main reason for those lower calorie counts: Their low protein content, says L’Heureux. Each gram of protein provides four calories, and plant-based milks often have only one or even no grams of protein per serving, compared to the eight grams in cow’s milk.
“These low-protein options will not support lean muscle mass retention or muscle building,” says L’Heureux. “Additionally, the lower protein content means you may find yourself hungry sooner since protein promotes satiety.”
Calcium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B12
These can be nutrients of concern for vegans and vegetarians, says L’Heureux, because they’re mostly found in animal products — including fortified dairy products. This is why it’s good to keep them in mind if a plant-based diet is a reason for your non-dairy milk choice.
Fortunately, many oat, almond, cashew, and coconut milks are fortified and considered good sources of all three nutrients. To tell, take a quick look at the label. “For a nutrient to be considered an excellent source, it has to provide 20% or more of the Daily Value,” says L’Heureux.
“Regardless of the milk you choose, watch out for added sugars,” says L’Heureux. So-called “original” versions of plant-based milk have about seven grams of added sugar per cup. “Chocolate and vanilla flavored ones can have as much as 13 grams of added sugar – that’s a whole tablespoon per serving,” she says. The simple fix: Look for kinds of milk identified as unsweetened.
Related Link: Milk: Food of the Week
4 Types of Non-Dairy Milk to Try
Good nutrition is vital, of course, but let’s be honest: None of it matters if my kids won’t actually consume the healthy stuff. So, I decided to bring home a carton each of unsweetened oat, almond, cashew, and coconut non-dairy milk for a good old-fashioned taste test. Here’s how that went:
Planet Oat Oatmilk, Original, No Sugar Added
(90 calories per cup, 2 g protein, 0 g added sugar, 20% vitamin D, 25% calcium, 10% vitamin B12)
My take: I’ll be honest and say I didn’t love the look of it: It was thin and light brown in color – you definitely wouldn’t confuse it with real milk. But the flavor was nice, neutral, slightly oat-y but not too sweet. I’d be happy using it in cereal if my usual unsweetened vanilla almond milk weren’t available.
Eric (my husband, a good sport who, full disclosure, has no interest in switching to plant-based milk): “Not bad. Tastes like leftover Cheerios milk.”
Hank (age five, the pickiest eater in the house): “I like it!” He asked for seconds, and later when I gave him the choice of the four to go with dinner, he opted for the oat milk.
Josie (age two, an avid whole dairy milk drinker): “I like it!” But not really – someone just really looks up to her big brother. She didn’t finish her cup.
Califia Farms Unsweetened Almondmilk
(35 calories per cup, 1 g protein, 0 g sugar, 45% calcium, no info on vitamin D or B12 content)
My take: I’m usually an almond milk girl, but this one wasn’t my favorite. I liked that it was thicker and slightly sweeter than the oat milk, but it was also grittier in texture and overall the flavor was meh. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried their barista blend, but it had added sugar and twice the calories so I bought the regular.
Eric, Hank, and Josie: A hard “no” from all three.
Silk Unsweetened Coconutmilk
(40 calories per cup, 0 g protein, 0 g sugar, 10% vitamin D, 35% calcium, 35% vitamin B12)
My take: This was definitely my favorite of the bunch. Thick and creamy, sweet and coconutty but not overly so. I wish it had a little protein, but I don’t really count on milk for that, personally.
Eric: “It’s fine for drinking, good consistency, and looks milkier. But it does taste like coconut so you couldn’t really cook with it.”
Josie: “The puppy likes it.” Hey, she’s two, and also very into puppies and pretending she’s one these days. But she asked for seconds and chose it for dinner later, so I can say with confidence the coconut milk was her first choice.
Hank: “I took two whole drinks because I love it.” However, he did go with oat milk later, so I suspect coconut milk was his second-place pick.
Silk Unsweetened Cashewmilk
(25 calories per cup, <1 g protein, 0 g sugar, 25% vitamin D, 45% calcium, no info on vitamin B12 content)
My take: I was not a fan. There was a mild hint of cashew flavor, like someone dropped a few in a glass of water and gave it a stir.
Eric: “Bitter and gross.”
Josie: “It’s sour.” It’s not, but again, she’s two – and old enough to find a negative word for something she doesn’t like.
Hank: No words this time – just a thumbs-down hand signal.
Related Link: 9 Diet Tweaks to Live By to Shed Fat & Get Lean
The Bottom Line: Non-Dairy Milk
Ultimately, while the taste test was fun, I probably won’t change my milk shopping habits much. Josie still needs the calories, fat, and protein in whole milk, particularly because she’s always struggled with weight gain. Eric and Hank are happy with their regular 2%. And I’ll probably stick with my usual unsweetened vanilla almond milk — I’ve just never liked regular milk, even as a kid — though I may trade it for coconut or oat milk on occasion to mix things up.
Whatever milk you choose, L’Heureux notes that your decision should be based on more than the latest trend. “Milk is a source of macro and micronutrients that help support a strong immune system, exercise recovery, and overall health,” she says. In other words, choose what’s best for you, not just the best-seller.