Done with dairy? The Best Plant-Based Milk Substitutes for you

Plant Based Milk

Written by cookandculture | Edited By: Carol Coutinho

December 5, 2020

Cow’s milk is so last year. No really – there are a number of reasons people have made the switch to plant-based milk substitutes, and we’ll fill you in on all of them. If you’re looking to make the switch yourself, you’re probably wondering, “Which milk is right for me? Oat? Almond? What are the tastes, textures, and health benefits of each option?” With so many different options available on the market, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and uncertain. But good news! We’ve done all the sampling and research so that you don’t have to! Through this article, we’ll provide you with the basics of each dairy-free milk substitute, as well as the unique health benefits of each, to make your decision-making process as smooth as oat milk.

Why make the switch, anyway?

As we mentioned earlier, there are a myriad of reasons why people make the switch from cow’s milk to plant-based, dairy-free options. For starters, it’s Vegan-approved since no cows were harmed in the making of these milks. For quite some time, there has been concern regarding the welfare of milk cows, who, according to the Humane Society of the United States, are subject to “repeated reimpregnation, short calving intervals, overproduction of milk, restrictive housing systems, poor nutrition, physical disorders, and overall maltreatment.” It’s easy to see why many animal-lovers have made the switch to plant-based milk substitutes, but concern for cow welfare is not the only reason. The production of cow’s milk has also been known to have detrimental effects on the environment, due to the massive carbon footprint that comes with raising cows for milk production. 

Despite it being a good source of calcium and protein, cow’s milk, if drunk in excess, could be harmful to your health. It has the potential to carry harmful pathogens like Salmonella and E. Coli, which can wreak havoc on your stomach and digestive system (1). In addition to this, somewhere between 30 million and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant (2), meaning they are unable to properly digest lactose and can suffer from bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping if dairy products are consumed. Regardless, lactose-intolerant individuals are just as deserving of a nice bowl of cereal or some cream in their coffee as anyone else. This is where plant-based, dairy free milk comes in. Often rich in vitamins and minerals and relatively low in fat and cholesterol, plant-based milk has been a healthy, life-changing alternative for many, whether they chose to make the switch for ethical or health-based reasons. 

Cow on farm

Which milk substitute holds the popular vote?

 

Before delving into the researching process or trying out these milk substitutes ourselves, we decided to conduct a survey to gain some insight into the world of dairy-free milk. We asked 500 plant-based milk drinkers to share, through a Google Form, their overall favorite milk substitute available on the market, as well as their reasoning for choosing it. Based on the results, oat milk has stolen the hearts of many, with nearly 40% of all participants choosing this as their favorite. Trailing close behind was soy milk with just over 28%, followed by almond milk with nearly 18%. The remainder of participants either selected or wrote in other plant-based milk substitutes like rice milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, and even a few varieties we’d never heard of before, such as hemp and pea milk! But what factors influenced our respondent’s decisions, you might ask?

Respondents claimed that their choice was based on factors such as taste, texture, environmental impact, protein and vitamin content, versatility, accessibility, allergies, and overall health benefits. We kept all of these elements in mind when researching, evaluating, and trying these milk substitutes for ourselves. Our goal here is not to provide you with a biased, subjective list of the best-to-worst milks, but a detailed profile of each alternative so you feel free to make that decision yourself based on your own preferences and health concerns. Keep scrolling to check out our detailed reports of each of them!

Milk Preferences Chart

The Rundown… 

Oat Milk

Oat Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Oat-ly (Original) 
  • Taste: If unflavored oats were liquified, and you drank it, this is precisely what we think that might taste like. The flavor is plain and neutral – not at all overbearing. 
  • Texture: Smooth and creamy
  • Best Used In: Cereal, smoothies, coffee, and tea
  • Health Benefits: The health benefits of oat milk are endless. It is particularly high in B vitamins, as well as other vitamins and nutrients. The beta-glucans within oat milk can contribute to heart health, and its abundance of calcium and vitamin D promote bone health. It’s also free of soy, nuts, and other allergens, which is certainly a plus!
  • Potential Health Concerns: Oat milk can be higher in sugar than other plant-based milks, and is rarely gluten free. 
  • Availability: Available in most, if not all supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Of all the plant-based milk substitutes available on the market, oat milk has the lowest environmental impact, thanks partly to its low water requirement. Better yet, “the production of oat milk results in 80% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 60% less energy and 80% less land usage in comparison to cow’s milk” (3). That’s a total win in our book!

Soy Milk

Soy Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Silk (Vanilla)
  • Taste: In our opinion, the soy milk we sampled tastes a lot like vanilla ice cream or pudding. This is likely due to the vanilla additive. 
  • Texture: Smooth and somewhat creamy
  • Best Used In: Pancake batter, smoothies, muffin mixes, and coffee
  • Health Benefits: Soy milk is an excellent source of potassium, and contains very little saturated fat. Low in caloric content, soy milk can promote weight loss. Like oat milk, it can aid in heart health as well as stronger bones. Soy-rich diets also do wonders for acne-prone skin and dry hair, thanks to anti-aging compounds within soy (4). It is also rich in magnesium, which prompts the body to release more of the hormone serotonin, boosting your overall mood. Most soy milk is gluten-free. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: Since soy contains estrogen-like compounds, some researchers have discovered that, when consumed in high amounts, soy has the potential to promote cancer cell growth and negatively impact fertility (5). 
  • Availability: Available in most, if not all supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: To put things into perspective, soy milk takes less than a fourteenth of the amount of fossil fuels required to produce the same amount of cow’s milk (6). That’s no small difference! 

Almond Milk

Almond Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Almond Breeze Original
  • Taste: The almond milk we sampled tasted delightfully nutty with a hint of flavor that we can only compare to a graham cracker, for lack of better comparison. Overall, it is a pleasant taste. 
  • Texture: Very smooth and creamy
  • Best Used In: In baking recipes, coffee, overnight oats, and as a milk/cream replacement in cooking “Because it cooperates nicely as a one-to-one milk substitute and is naturally sweet, it’s fabulous for making desserts” (7). 
  • Health Benefits: Low in both calories and sugar, almond milk is a wonderful option for those with a goal of weight loss. High in Vitamin E, almond milk can have positive effects on overall mental performance and sharpness. Like soy milk, almond milk contains very little saturated fat, and is naturally gluten-free. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: The protein content of almond milk isn’t very impressive, and this option is certainly not suitable for anyone with a nut allergy. 
  • Availability: Available in most, if not all supermarkets 
  • Environmental Impact: There has been some controversy surrounding the environmental sustainability of almond production, with just one almond’s growth requiring five litres of water (8). However, the carbon footprint of almonds is significantly less than that of cows and dairy milk production. While perhaps not the most sustainable option, almond milk is certainly less harmful to the environment than the production of cow’s milk.

Cashew Milk

Cashew Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Silk (Unsweetened, Vanilla)
  • Taste: This milk tasted very much like cardboard – sorry cashews, we can’t lie! We’re all about transparency here at Cook and Culture, and we value honesty as much as we do good food. But keep in mind, taste can differ by brand and even within a brand, depending on sweeteners, additives, and flavoring. 
  • Texture: Watery
  • Best Used In: Soups, ice cream, coffee and tea
  • Health Benefits: Cashew milk is jam-packed with healthy fats, proteins, and minerals. The antioxidants within cashews are great for eye health and overall immunity, and its anacardic acid can even help prevent certain cancers. Lastly, an impressive amount of Vitamin K in cashew milk can help aid in blood clotting (9). 
  • Potential Health Concerns: Just as with almond milk, cashew milk should be avoided by those with nut allergies to prevent anywhere from mild to life-threatening reactions.
  • Availability: Available in some supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Since cashew crops do not yield relatively high amounts of cashews, it is not the most eco-friendly milk alternative available. On the other hand, cashew milk uses little water in production, so it has its advantages.

Hazelnut Milk

Hazelnut Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Elmhurst (Unsweetened)
  • Taste: Elmhurst’s hazelnut milk had a delicious nutty flavor that was not too overbearing, though we would be more likely to recommend it for sweet foods and drinks as opposed to savory dishes and soups. 
  • Texture: Thick and creamy
  • Best Used In: Coffee, cappuccino foam, and oatmeal
  • Health Benefits: Some of the most noteworthy benefits of hazelnut milk include protection from cellular damage, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as improved blood sugar levels (10). Hazelnut is naturally gluten-free as well, and is rich in folic acid which promotes healthy cell growth and function.
  • Potential Health Concerns: Darn those nut allergies! Here’s another nut milk you’ll want to avoid if nut allergies apply to you. 
  • Availability: Available in some supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Hazelnut is a highly sustainable crop, tolerant of poor soil and even protective against soil erosion, making hazelnut milk one of the most eco-friendly nut milk alternatives available on the market.

 

Flax Milk

Flax Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Good Karma (Original)
  • Taste: Good Karma’s Original Flax Milk had a somewhat syrupy taste, though this may have been due to the added sugar. If you do not like the flavor of flaxseed, this may not be the plant-based milk alternative for you, because you can definitely taste that hint of flax. 
  • Texture: Watery
  • Best Used In: Cookies, coffee, and mashed potatoes (unsweetened varieties of the milk, of course!)
  • Health Benefits: They don’t call flaxseed a superfood for nothing! Flax milk is a “great source of plant-based protein and has plenty of calcium, protein and omega-3 healthy fats” (11). Omega 3’s boast a plethora of health benefits, ranging from improvements in eye health to decreases in feelings of depression and anxiety. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: If you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to skip this one. According to WebMD, “Adding flaxseed to the diet might increase the number of bowel movements each day. It might also cause gastrointestinal side effects such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, stomachache, and nausea” (12). 
  • Availability: Available in some supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Flaxseed is cultivated in over fifty countries worldwide and its milk production  requires only a fraction of the amount of water required to make almond milk. While flax seed may not have made its way into as many coffee shops, it is certainly a more eco-friendly option than some of its competitors and is a smart choice for eco-conscious consumers. 

Sesame Milk

Sesame Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Hope & Sesame (Original)
  • Taste: This sesame milk had a somewhat bitter taste to it – other than that, there isn’t very much flavor to it. 
  • Texture: Very thick and somewhat chalky
  • Best Served: By itself, either over ice, or hot mixed with cinnamon and honey (13)
  • Health Benefits: Sesame milk is a great source of fiber that shares many of the same health benefits as oat milk. Additionally, it can reduce inflammation and aid in blood-cell formation. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: According to RxList, sesame has the potential to lower blood sugar, so people with already-low blood sugar may want to avoid a high intake of sesame. Sesame allergies are more common than you think, so be mindful of this if sesame is foreign to your usual diet.
  • Availability: Available in few supermarkets – mainly health food stores
  • Environmental Impact: Good news! According to Healabel, “sesame seed production is relatively sustainable – there is no known significant damage to air, water, land, soil, forests, etc.” (14). 

Rice Milk

Rice Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Rice Dream (Original)
  • Taste: Rice Dream’s Original Rice Milk tastes fairly plain, though slightly on the sweet side, with just a hint of white-rice flavor. We would compare it to a sweet 1% cow’s milk. 
  • Texture: Light and smooth.
  • Best Used In: Cereals, oatmeal, and soups
  • Health Benefits: Did you know that rice milk is the least allergenic among plant-based milks (15)? In addition to this, it’s got plenty of calcium, which means strong bones and healthy teeth!
  • Potential Health Concerns: Rice milk contains very little protein, so if that is an important factor in your milk selection process, rice milk is probably not the best option for you unless you’ll be adding in your own protein powder. 
  • Availability: Available in some supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Unfortunately, rice milk production requires copious amounts of water and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other plant milk (16), making it one of the lesser environmentally-friends plant-based milk alternatives on the market. However, it is still a more eco-friendly option compared to cow’s milk. 

 

Coconut Milk

Coconut Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Silk (Original) 
  • Taste: If you like the taste of coconut, you will adore this milk! Tropical coconut flavor notes are definitely present in this milk, though not overbearing.
  • Texture: Creamy and smooth, though not quite as smooth as almond milk
  • Best Used In: Coffee, baking, and yogurt-making
  • Health Benefits: Coconut milk has the power to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, build muscle, assist in weight loss, relieve constipation, and more!
  • Potential Health Concerns: Coconut milk contains high levels of calories and fats compared to other milk alternatives.
  • Availability: Available in most supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Coconut milk is another plant-based milk with both pros and cons in terms of environmental sustainability. It is great in the sense that “coconut milk production emits half the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of soy milk, and requires little water and energy compared to other plant-based milk products” (17). However, these benefits may be outweighed by the emissions produced in transporting the product to the US from far-away countries such as the Philippines.  

Hemp Milk

Hemp Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Pacific Foods (Original)
  • Taste: Creamy and slightly thick
  • Texture: The hemp milk we sampled from Pacific Foods tasted nuttier than expected, but not at all in a bad way! It is a bit on the sweet side
  • Best Used In: Hot and cold cereals, baked goods, smoothies, and lattes
  • Health Benefits: Hemp milk is an excellent source of Vitamin A, B, and D, as well as calcium, iron, and even zinc. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: While rare, some consumers have had allergic reactions to hemp products. 
  • Availability: Available in few supermarkets – mainly health food stores
  • Environmental Impact: Hemp milk is one of the better alternatives when considering the environmental impact of plant-based milks, as hemp plant production requires less water and produces fewer emissions than other options, such as coconut milk. Three cheers for the cannabis plant!

Pea Milk

Peas
  • Brand We Tried: Ripple (Original)
  • Taste: Ripple Pea Milk tastes similar to fairly cow’s milk, only slightly sweeter. It doesn’t leave a bad aftertaste in your mouth like some other alternatives have a tendency to do, so that’s a plus!
  • Texture: Very creamy and smooth
  • Best Used In: Cereals and smoothies
  • Health Benefits: Another great source of protein and low in calories, pea milk has many health benefits. It is relatively low in sugar and supports bone health. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: Pea-protein allergies, while rare, are present in some people.
  • Availability: Available in some supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: Pea milk is among the more eco-friendly milk options for a few reasons, one being that it takes 86% less greenhouse gas emissions to make pea milk than almond milk (18). Unsurprisingly, its production also requires significantly less water than the overall production process of cow’s milk. 

Macadamia Milk

Macadamia Milk
  • Brand We Tried: Milkadamia (Unsweetened)
  • Taste: Milkadamia’s macadamia milk didn’t taste like much of anything to us. Any hint of the nut’s flavor that might have been present was extremely subtle. 
  • Texture: Smooth, but a little bit slimy
  • Best Used In: Lattes, yogurt, and savory dishes
  • Health Benefits: Macadamia milk contains many Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and is rich in several vitamins and antioxidants, boosting immunity. 
  • Potential Health Concerns: Macadamia nut allergies are not uncommon.
  • Availability: Available in some supermarkets
  • Environmental Impact: So long as pesticides aren’t used in the farming process, macadamia milk doesn’t produce any significant damage to the environment. Production of the nut itself is relatively sustainable, especially if grown in areas where water is not scarce and droughts and not a common threat. 

We hope you enjoyed this comprehensive review of most, if not all, of the dairy-free milk alternatives on the market (although who knows what they’ll come up with next!) With all this information in your back pocket, you’re now ready to make an informed decision on which plant-based dairy-free milk alternative is the right one for you. See which kinds your local grocery store carries, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, consider adding an almond cow – a plant-based milk-making machine – to your wish list to whip up some dairy-free milk at home! 


Whatever options you try, we would love to hear about it. Reach out to us on Instagram @cookandculture and let us know which types of milk you prefer.

 

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