Whether you’ve been vegan for over a decade or whether you’re slowly considering a shift toward eating fewer animal products, the non-dairy milk aisle can be overwhelming. With so many options and differing opinions online, it can be difficult to choose the best non-dairy milk for your needs.
So which non-dairy milk is best? There isn’t a straightforward answer, but I’ll give you the information you need in order to make the best choice with confidence.
In this guide, I’ll help you navigate the different types of non-dairy milk, nutritional considerations to look for when shopping, types of food additives in plant-based milk and whether they’re harmful, and how to choose the best option.
As a bonus, I’ll also list my top product recommendations!
What is non-dairy milk?
Non-dairy or “plant-based” milk is used as an alternative to cow’s milk for drinking, baking, and cooking. It can be made from various plant-based foods, as we’ll discuss below.
Non-dairy milk is primarily used by people who are vegan, have lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy, are looking to reduce their intake of animal-based foods, or want a more environmentally friendly alternative to cow’s milk.
Types of non-dairy milk
With the overwhelming variety of plant-based milk on grocery store shelves, it seems like any plant can be turned into milk!
I’ll discuss the most popular types of non-dairy milk below and provide some context for each.
Legume-based milk alternatives
If you aren’t sure what legumes are, they’re pretty similar to beans in taste, texture, appearance, and nutrition (think soybeans, split peas, and lentils). Non-dairy milk made from legumes is the highest in protein with around 7-8 grams per cup, so I tend to recommend them the most often.
Soy milk is one of the most nutritious non-dairy milk options, being naturally rich in protein.
It’s also a great source of anti-inflammatory isoflavones. Isoflavones, also called phytoestrogens, are commonly confused with the estrogen produced by humans and animals. While similar in structure to mammalian estrogen, isoflavones don’t always act the same way.
In fact, depending on the area of the body, phytoestrogens can either have estrogenic or anti-estrogenic effects. The ability of phytoestrogens to block estrogen in reproductive tissues like the breast and uterus may at least partially explain the association between soy foods and decreased risk of cancer1 in these areas
Pea milk is made from yellow split peas and is best known under the Ripple brand name. It’s a great protein-rich option for people with soy allergies.
Nut-based milk alternatives
Like legumes, nuts can also be used to make plant-based milk. You might assume that they’re much higher in fat, but because the nuts are blended with so much water they typically only contain a few grams or so.
Although almonds are an incredibly nutritious nut, they’re blended with so much water to make almond milk that you don’t get the same nutrition benefits you’d get from a handful of almonds.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of when choosing a plant-based milk. Almond milk is low in protein, which may not be an issue if you already get more than enough protein from food, but it does make it a less nutrient-dense choice than soy or pea milk.
Cashew milk and almond milk are identical regarding their nutrient content, with almond milk being slightly higher in potassium. Cashew milk has a creamier texture, however, which makes it a nice option for things like hot chocolate or smoothies.
While technically considered a fruit, the FDA requires that coconut be listed as a tree nut in allergen statements on packaged food. Coconut milk has a pleasant flavor, but unfortunately provides zero protein, no fiber, and is slightly higher in saturated fat than other non-dairy milks. For these reasons, I typically don’t recommend choosing coconut milk as your primary milk of choice.
Keep in mind that coconut milk sold in cartons is very different from canned coconut milk. Carton coconut milk has a much higher proportion of water and is often fortified with helpful nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Canned coconut milk is just for cooking and shouldn’t be used as a beverage – it’s too thick and high in saturated fat for this purpose.
Walnut milk sticks out as a unique choice thanks to its omega-3 fat content. It can be a great option for people looking to eat more omega-3s, but it isn’t a very good source of protein.
Unfortunately, none of the store-bought walnut milk options currently available are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D, or vitamin B12.
Grain-based milk alternatives
Non-dairy milk alternatives made from grains like oats and rice are great options if you’re allergic to soy, peas, or tree nuts. Because they’re rich in carbohydrates, they have a slightly sweet flavor.
Oat milk is certainly having a moment – creamy, environmentally-friendly, and delicious, it’s no wonder people love it. One health benefit of oat milk is that it contains a small amount of beta-glucan, a soluble dietary fiber known for its cholesterol-lowering ability. It’s also frequently fortified with vitamins and minerals, which is a plus. However, it’s fairly low in protein.
When buying oat milk, pay attention to the amount of added sugars in the product. Although not every brand does this, many brands of oat milk use a process called “hydrolysis” to break the natural carbohydrates down into smaller, starchier pieces that add creaminess and sweetness to the product. Effectively, this process creates sugars.
These smaller pieces of carbohydrate act like sugar in the body and the FDA2 requires companies to label them as added sugars, even when no actual sugar is used in the product. This is why you might see a carton of oat milk with added sugars on the nutrition label despite having no sugar in the ingredients list.
If you prefer oat milk that isn’t processed using hydrolysis, look for one with zero grams of added sugars on the nutrition facts label.
Rice milk has been around for much longer than oat milk and is fairly similar in terms of nutrition, but is lower in both protein and fiber. It’s also fortified less often than oat milk, with DREAM Original Classic Rice Milk (the most popular rice milk brand) containing no calcium, vitamin D, or vitamin B12. You’ll have to look specifically for the enriched version, which provides calcium and vitamin D.
Rice milk can also be produced using hydrolysis, so be sure to read the nutrition facts label when choosing between products if you prefer to avoid added sugars. While a small amount of added sugars in the context of a well-balanced diet isn’t a problem for most people, small amounts of added sugar can add up since they’re present in so many foods.
For a more in-depth comparison, check out Oat Milk vs. Rice Milk – Is One Healthier?
Seed-based milk alternatives
Like nuts, seeds are rich in healthy fats that add a creamy texture when made into non-dairy beverages.
Flax seeds are one of the best foods for helping vegans get enough omega-3 fats, and flax milk also counts. The omega-3 content varies by brand, with Good Karma providing 1.2 grams and Malibu Mylk providing 1.8 grams of omega-3 per serving.
Flax milk is naturally low in protein, but you can find a version from Good Karma that has added pea protein. Good Karma also fortifies their flax milk with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, while Malibu Mylk chooses not to.
Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds and, like flax milk, is a good source of omega-3 fats. It’s still low in protein compared to soy and pea milk but is higher than most nut-based milk.
Pacific Foods is the most popular and widely available brand of hemp milk and they do fortify their product with vitamin D, calcium, and B12.
Protein-fortified milk alternatives
Some brands of non-dairy milk that are naturally low in protein add pea protein in order to improve their nutrient density. Some examples include:
- Ripple Oatmilk + Protein
- Good Karma Flaxmilk with Omega-3 + Protein, Unsweetened
- Silk Protein Original Almond & Cashew Milk
- Orgain Organic Protein Almond Milk
These products can be a great tool for meeting your protein needs while still allowing you to enjoy the flavor of your favorite non-dairy milk.
Recent innovations in the non-dairy milk industry have provided us with products that are extremely similar to dairy milk in terms of taste, color, consistency, and mouthfeel. These products seem to be marketed to people who want to reduce their dairy intake but miss the familiar taste of cow’s milk or who don’t like the taste of traditional plant-based milks. For lack of a better term, I’m referring to these products as “dairy dupes”.
Silk Next Milk is an example. It’s extremely similar to dairy milk in terms of its flavor and consistency and consists primarily of a blend of oat milk and coconut milk. It contains a moderate amount of protein at 4 grams per cup – higher than almond, oat, or rice milk alone, but not as high as soy, pea, or protein-fortified non-dairy milks.
NotMilk is another example. Unlike Silk Next Milk, it isn’t made from a blend of recognizable non-dairy milks like oat or soy. Instead, it’s made primarily of a mixture of water and sunflower oil.
These products aren’t as nutrient-dense as something like fortified soy milk or pea milk, but they do contain more protein than options like almond, oat, or rice milk and are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. They wouldn’t be my first choice in terms of health benefits, but they can be a good option for people who prefer the taste of cow’s milk.
What to look for in a non-dairy milk
While it’s difficult to give a blanket recommendation for plant-based milk that will meet the needs and preferences of every person, I’ve included some criteria below for determining the most nutritious options.
While it’s entirely possible for vegans to get enough protein through food alone, I have personally seen vegan clients who aren’t getting enough or who are on the low end of the optimal protein recommendations.
I find that choosing a protein-rich option for your primary non-dairy milk can make getting enough protein more of a no-brainer. It’s also helpful for making breakfast meals like cereal, oatmeal, and smoothies more balanced and good for keeping you full longer throughout the day.
Higher-protein non-dairy milks also provide iron, another nutrient that can be challenging for some vegans to get enough of if they aren’t frequently eating well-balanced meals. Iron is essential for transporting oxygen throughout the body and preventing fatigue due to iron-deficiency anemia.
Compared to the other types of non-dairy milk, soy milk, pea milk, and protein-fortified non-dairy milks (as discussed above) are the highest-protein plant-based milk options.
Vitamin & mineral fortification
A major benefit of purchasing store-bought non-dairy milk is that many of them are fortified with vitamins and minerals to improve their nutrient content and provide micronutrients that you’d usually find in dairy. In my experience, some are more important for vegans to pay attention to than others.
Micronutrients often added include:
- Calcium. Probably the most well-known nutrient in cow’s milk, calcium is incredibly important for maintaining strong, healthy bones. Some plant-based foods contain calcium, but fortified non-dairy milk is one of the most concentrated sources for vegans.
- Vitamins A & D. These fat-soluble vitamins are often added cow’s milk to improve its nutrition profile, so many non-dairy milk brands add them to their products as well. Fortification of vitamin A isn’t as important for vegans since they tend to get plenty of its precursor, beta carotene, from fruits and vegetables, but vitamin D is lacking in most plant-based foods and can be incredibly helpful when added to non-dairy milk.
- Vitamin B12. The additional vitamin B12 found in some non-dairy milk can help vegans who don’t take a vitamin B12 supplement get enough through their diet and prevent neurological complications that can result from a deficiency. If you already take a supplement, choosing B12-fortified milk may not be as important as for a vegan who doesn’t supplement.
- Vitamin E. Another fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin E is naturally present in cow’s milk and is often added to non-dairy milk.
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2). Riboflavin is often added to non-dairy milk to imitate the nutrient content of dairy.
At a minimum, I recommend choosing non-dairy milk that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D2. I also highly recommend choosing one with vitamin B12, especially for vegans who don’t take a B12 supplement.
Choosing a milk alternative with vitamin A, vitamin E, and riboflavin isn’t as crucial for vegans. Many fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin E is found in higher-fat foods like nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Riboflavin is present in grains, fortified cereal, grains, mushrooms, apples, sunflower seeds, and tomatoes, so riboflavin deficiency in developed countries is almost non-existent.
Pay attention to added sugars
Too many added sugars in the diet can crowd out foods that are more nutrient-dense. Small amounts of added sugars in the context of a balanced diet aren’t problematic, but they’re present in so many products that they can easily add up throughout the day.
Of course, whether plant-based milk contains added sugars and how much will vary based on the brand, so be sure to check the nutrition facts label if limiting added sugars is important to you.
As discussed earlier, added sugars can be present in oat or rice milk despite there not being any sweeteners listed in the ingredients list. This is because of the way these grains are sometimes processed into smaller chains of carbohydrates that add creaminess to the product unfortunately act like added sugars in the body. If you want to avoid these added sugars, choose oat or rice milk with zero grams of added sugar on the nutrition facts label.
For a more detailed explanation of added sugars in oat and rice milk, read my comparison of Oat Milk vs. Rice Milk.
Food additives – are they harmful?
An extremely common concern about non-dairy milk products is the presence of food additives. You’ll often hear these additives referred to as “fillers” with claims about them being pro-inflammatory or “toxic” to the gut.
Food additives commonly found in non-dairy milk include:
- Guar gum
- Gellan gum
- Locust bean gum
- Sunflower lecithin
- Soy lecithin
- Natural flavors
It’s understandable to be concerned when you see ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, but don’t let this turn you off from plant-based milks. These food additives are all approved by the FDA and are added to improve the product in some way.
Guar gum, gellan gum, and locust bean gum improve the consistency and creaminess of non-dairy milk by adding thickness. Sunflower lecithin and soy lecithin are emulsifiers, which keep the natural fats and water in plant-based milk mixed together for a smoother consistency.
For the vast majority of people, these food additives are safe to consume. Some individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or severe food intolerances may be sensitive to these ingredients, but reactions are rare.
And even for people with IBS, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that these food additives cause inflammation. If you’d like to read more, I’ve previously written about the safety of guar gum and soy lecithin in more detail.
Should you make your own non-dairy milk?
One downside of purchasing plant-based milk? They can be a little pricy, especially some of the more unique products like hazelnut, hemp, or macadamia milk.
Because of this, many people choose to make their own non-dairy milk at home. There are even kitchen appliances that exist specifically for this purpose. While this can help save money, a significant downside of homemade milks is that they aren’t fortified with vitamins and minerals like most store-bought varieties are.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t make your own – it just may be more challenging to get enough of certain nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
You may be more likely to need supplements depending on what the rest of your diet looks like and factors like sun exposure, and paying particular attention to calcium-rich plant-based foods like the following will be very important:
- Calcium-set tofu (will include calcium in the ingredients list as calcium sulfate)
- Bok choy
- Chia seeds
- Pinto beans
Choosing the best non-dairy milk for your needs
The best choice will ultimately depend on multiple factors, and the best non-dairy milk for one person may not fit the needs of another. Keep the following things in mind when making your decision:
- Protein. Choosing a non-dairy milk with 7 or more grams of protein is an easy way for vegans to optimize their protein intake, especially vegans who are highly physically active or are trying to build muscle and have higher protein needs. It’s also great for making meals like smoothies, oatmeal, or cereal more nutritionally balanced.
- Vitamin & mineral needs. Using fortified non-dairy milk is one of the easiest ways for vegans to get enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet to support bone health. It’s also a great option for vegans who wish to get their vitamin B12 from fortified foods instead of (or in combination with) a supplement.
- Food allergies and intolerances. Obviously, you’ll want to choose a milk alternative that isn’t made from any foods you’re allergic or can’t tolerate.
- Variety. Including a variety of nutritious foods every day or week is important for getting a balance of different nutrients, and non-dairy milks can help with this. For example, if you eat a lot of beans and lentils but not much tofu or tempeh, choosing soy milk can provide you with some of the health benefits of soy-based foods.
- Added sugars. Do you tend to eat or drink a lot of sweet things? If so, choosing an unsweetened (zero added sugars) plant milk can help keep your total intake of added sugars down. This may also be a good choice if you have type 2 diabetes and struggle to manage your blood sugar. For most people, a small amount of added sugars from non-dairy milk isn’t much to worry about when consuming a balanced diet low in other sources of added sugar.
- How you plan to use it. For non-dairy milk you plan to use a lot of, I strongly recommend choosing a protein-rich option fortified with calcium and vitamin D, plus B12 if you don’t take a supplement. If you only need to use a little every so often in baking and cooking, choosing the most nutrient-dense option isn’t quite as crucial.
Just for reference, I’ve listed my top picks below! I’m not sponsored by these brands, I just think these are great, nutritious products.
- Silk Organic Unsweetened Soymilk
- Good Karma Flaxmilk with Omega-3 + Protein, Unsweetened
- Ripple Unsweetened Vanilla Plant-Based Milk
- Silk Unsweet Almondmilk
- Silk 0g Sugar Oat Milk
Non-dairy milks play a helpful, convenient role in providing vegans with necessary nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, and I recommend choosing products that are fortified with these nutrients. Choosing a high-protein plant-based milk can also be helpful, especially if your protein intake from food tends to be on the low end.
While there is a multitude of non-dairy milk options available, the right choice will ultimately depend on your nutrient needs, dietary preferences, health goals, and food allergies or intolerances – not to mention taste!
If you need help choosing a non-dairy milk that best fits your needs, speaking with a vegan registered dietitian can help.
Non-Dairy Milk FAQs
How do I transition to non-dairy milk?
Most non-dairy milk can be used as a direct substitute for cow’s milk, whether in smoothies, cereal, or baking. Don’t be afraid to try different types like soy, oat, pea, or almond milk. The flavor and consistency can differ by brand, so you may need to try multiple types before finding one you love.
Starting out with non-dairy milks like Silk Next Milk or NotMilk that closely mimic the flavor, appearance, and consistency of cow’s milk while you explore your options can be a helpful strategy.
Is animal-free dairy milk dairy-free? Is it vegan?
Animal-free dairy milk (under brands like Bored Cow) is vegan but is NOT dairy-free. It’s vegan because it uses whey protein produced through microbial fermentation rather than sourcing it from dairy milk, so it doesn’t contain animal-based products. However, people with dairy allergies will still react to the whey protein, so it can’t be considered dairy-free. It is lactose-free. Confusing, I know!
What should I look for in non-dairy milk?
For the most nutritious non-dairy milk, look for one that contains 7 or more grams of protein, has minimal added sugars, and is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. For vegans, choosing one with vitamin B12 is also a good idea. You may need to try different types and brands of non-dairy milk to find one that meets your dietary and flavor preferences, fits your budget, and best supports your health needs.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Pabich M, Materska M. Biological Effect of Soy Isoflavones in the Prevention of Civilization Diseases. Nutrients. 2019;11(7):1660. Published 2019 Jul 20. doi:10.3390/nu11071660
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for Industry: Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels Questions and Answers Related to the Compliance Date, Added Sugars, and Declaration of Quantitative Amounts of Vitamins and Minerals. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-nutrition-and-supplement-facts-labels-questions-and-answers-related-compliance. Accessed May 25, 2023.