Got Plant Milk?

Gabrielle Lemma, Dietetic Intern

Milk alternatives have become integral products in today’s grocery stores. The decline of $1.1 billion in U.S dairy milk sales in 2018 reflects a movement toward plant-based milk alternatives for a variety of reasons including dietary restrictions, and ethical and environmental concerns. Plant milks are produced by grinding the plant material (bean, nut, etc.), and subsequently adding water, flavors, vitamins, and minerals. The original milk alternatives were soy, rice, almond, and coconut milk. Among the newer alternatives are flaxseed, hemp seed, macadamia nut, oat, pea, quinoa, pecan, and walnut milks.

The nutritional profiles of plant milks are quite variable with the biggest difference found in protein content. Other variations are found in calories, fat, sugar, vitamin, and mineral content.

  • Calcium fortified soymilk is the closest match to cow’s milk with 7-12 g protein per cup, all nine essential amino acids, and it is fortified vitamin D and vitamin B12.
  • The next best alternative is pea protein milk which is analogous to cow’s milk in terms of potassium, it contains 8 g protein with all nine essential amino acids, and it is often fortified with calcium.
  • Nut based milks (almond, walnut, cashew etc.) are among the best sources of polyunsaturated fats and vitamins A and E, but often are deficient in protein (almond milk yields a lowly 1 g of protein per cup) which is problematic for children and the elderly.
  • Other note-worthy milks include hemp milk and oat milk. Hemp milk contains 3-5 g protein with all nine essential amino acids, as well as considerable polyunsaturated fats, magnesium, calcium, iron, and potassium. Additionally, it is very low in carbohydrates. Lastly, oat milk generally contains 2-4 g protein, 2 g fiber, and is often fortified with vitamin A, calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin D.

Another factor to consider is taste. Plain soymilk is known to have a “beany” taste. Comparatively, almond milk is sweeter with a smoother consistency, and has a less chalky mouthfeel. Likewise, oat milk is sweet in flavor, though it is even thinner than almond milk. Flavor blends that combine almond, coconut, cashew milks, and vegan proteins are the latest trend in both almond milk and soymilk varieties.

When deliberating over which plant milk to choose, the skill of reading nutrition labels is extremely valuable. It is important to remember that items listed earlier in the ingredient list will be in greater amounts than items listed later. While dairy milk is minimally processed and farm fresh, plant milks are manufactured and can include multiple additives. Key components of a nutrition label are as follows:

  • Grams of protein
  • Vitamins and minerals

Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 are important for vegans as they are often deficient in these vitamins.

  • Added sugar

Other names for added sugar include dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, nectar, and raw sugar. You should aim to limit added sugar in your diet.

  • Additives to thicken and emulsify plant milks

Common additives include carrageenan (thickener/stabilizer/texturizer made from seaweed), xanthan gum (thickener/stabilizer made from corn, soy or wheat), locust bean gum (thickening/gelling agent made from seeds of a carob tree), and guar gum (a soluble fiber made from guar beans). The FDA has deemed these additives safe, although some individuals may not tolerate them. Other ingredients may include natural flavors (formulated by flavorists in the lab from natural sources), and soy and sunflower lecithin (fatty substances from plant tissues).


  1. Choriando M. US milk sales plunge by $1.1 billion: Veganism Cited As A Factor. Plant Based News Web site. https://www.plantbasednews.org/post/us-milk-sales-plunge-1-1-billion-dairy-bosses-blame-vegan. Published 2019. Accessed May, 2019.
  2. Wright K. The coup in the dairy aisle. Today’s Dietitian Web site. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0918p28.shtml. Published September 2018. Accessed May, 2019.