The Athlete’s Guide to Alternative Milks
Nondairy “milk” has gone totally mainstream. But with so many options, it can be tough to know which to choose. Not anymore.
If it seems like your coffee shop has more varieties of milk than it does roasts, you might be right. The nondairy milk, aka “alternative” or “alt” milk, market is exploding — and people are here for it. American consumers threw down more cash in that category in 2019 than they did in any other category of plant-based food and beverage alternatives, according to the Good Food Institute. Meanwhile, year-over-year dairy milk sales remain flat. And globally, alt-milk sales are expected to reach $38 billion by 2024.
“This boom aligns with the growing trend of plant-based eating,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD, a nutrition and wellness expert in New York City and coauthor of “Sugar Shock.” Studies show that plant-based eating is good for your heart health, boosts immunity, curbs inflammation, can help you maintain your weight, and may lower your disease risk, among other benefits (one being that it presents no animal-welfare concerns). And plant milks in particular have a much lighter footprint than dairy does (dairy is second only to meat in terms of foods that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions).
"Every alt milk has a different nutritional profile, flavor and consistency, so the right one for you depends on your preferences and needs."
RD, Nutrition and Wellness Expert in New York City and Coauthor of “Sugar Shock”
Of course, just like there’s a difference between, say, cow’s and goat’s milk, no two alt milks are exactly the same. But before we get into the nuts (pun intended) and bolts of each kind, follow these basic guidelines when shopping for one:
- Choose unsweetened. A diet high in added sugar has been linked to higher disease risk, weight gain, and even poorer sleep. If you can’t find an unsweetened option, try to grab a carton with 4 or fewer grams of added sugar per serving, says Cassetty.
- Consider what it’s replacing. Dairy milk contains protein, fat, vitamin D and calcium. But alt milks vary wildly in their nutritional makeup, and even different brands of the same type can differ, says Cassetty. Scan the nutrition panel to make sure it’s fortified with these nutrients.
- Keep it simple. Whenever possible, look for short, easy-to-read ingredient lists, like “water, almonds, sea salt,” says Cassetty. This means the milk is minimally processed, not filled with nutrition-less additives to improve texture or prolong its shelf life.
Every alt milk has a different nutritional profile, flavor and consistency, so the right one for you depends on your preferences and needs, says Cassetty, who advises stocking more than one so you have exactly what you want when you want it. Try these expert-recommended picks.
Best for Breakfast: Oat
Thanks to its supercreamy, smooth texture and the fact that it works so well in coffee and lattes (it even foams like dairy milk), oat milk’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. (There was a shortage in 2018, and another one due to coronavirus.) Its subtly sweet-meets-salty flavor works well over cereal, in pancake and muffin recipes, and of course, in oatmeal. FYI: Milking oats does remove some of the nutrients (like protein and fiber) you’d get from eating them, says Cassetty.
Average cup: 120 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g protein
Best Before a Workout: Almond
If you like a pre-sweat smoothie, choose almond milk as your base because it’s low in fat, says Lauren Slayton, RD, the founder of Foodtrainers in New York City. Fat takes a while to digest, so consuming too much of it too close to training can slow you down or make you feel sick during your workout.
Average cup: 40 calories, 3 g fat, 1 g protein
Best After a Workout: Pea
Made out of protein from yellow peas, pea milk is one of the few choices that can compete on the protein front with dairy. With 8 grams of protein per cup, it’s ideal for recovery, says Slayton, either on its own or blended into a smoothie. It’s also one of the most sustainable alt options, as growing peas takes much less water than growing nuts does.
Average cup: 70 calories, 4.5 g fat, 8 g protein
Best Neutral-Tasting Cooking Option: Soy
Like tofu, soy milk, which is also made from soybeans, takes on the taste of what you add to it. But even though it’s perhaps the oldest resident of the alt-milk aisle, soy has fallen out of favor in recent years because it’s high in FODMAPs, a type of carb found in certain foods that cause digestive issues for some people, says Cassetty. Others might skip soy because it’s often genetically modified, she adds, though experts say it’s still TBD on whether that has any impact on your health. If you don’t have digestive issues, organic, non-GMO (just to be safe), plain, unsweetened soy milk works well in traditional dairy-rich recipes, like a creamy vegan pasta or salad dressing, says Cassetty.
Average cup: 80 calories, 4 g fat, 7 g protein
Best for Flavorful Cooking: Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has a creaminess and a slightly sweet, nutty taste that works perfectly in soups, curries and other dishes that could use more oomph, as well as baked goods, says Slayton. Plus, it contains medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat that your body can break down better than others and has been linked to weight loss and brain health. Generally, if you’re cooking, use the canned type but use it conservatively, as it has a bolder flavor and way more calories than the carton version, which is a lighter option that’s good for drinks and smoothies.
Average ¼-cup serving (canned): 120 calories, 12 g fat, ~1 g protein
Average cup (carton): 50 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g protein
Best DIY Option: Hemp Milk
With a mild nutty and earthy flavor, hemp milk is a versatile choice. It’s also easy to make yourself, says Slayton, who advises just blending hemp seeds and water, no soaking or straining required. And thanks to its omega-3 fats, which are hard to find in this category, hemp milk can be anti-inflammatory, a plus for get-after-it athletes.
Average cup: 60 calories, 4.5 g fat, 3 g protein
If you try one milk and aren’t feeling it, consider experimenting with other brands before you snub it for good, as each brand is different. Once you determine your favorites, you’ll know how to milk them for all they’re worth.