The Best Plant-Based Milk: According to a Dietitian

Plant-based milks are the rage these days. How do we navigate all our choices out there? Is there a plant milk that can really compete with cow’s milk? Continue reading to get my perspective and recommendations on what I think are the best choices available.

Illustration for blog post title: The Best Plant-Based Milk According to a Dietitian

So You’ve Decided to Give Up Dairy..

You have your reasons. Maybe you or a family member is allergic. Maybe you’re like more than half the world’s population: lactose intolerant. You don’t want to continue consuming something that gives you bubble gut and the runs. Maybe you’ve seen the research showing the associations between high milk consumption and higher rates of bone fractures. Or maybe you’ve seen the research showing the associations between milk consumption and breast cancer. Maybe you’ve heard that milk might cause acne. Maybe you’re just weirded out by drinking what is, essentially, bovine breast milk.

Whatever your reasons, the question is: now what? What can I replace cow’s milk with for me and my family? Let me walk you through what I look for in a plant-based milk.

Fortified Plant-Based Milks

It is certainly possible to get as much calcium and vitamin D as you need from the sun and other plant foods. However, it may be easier for you (& your picky kiddos) to get it from a fortified plant milk.

Fortification is the process of intentionally increasing the content of one or more micronutrients in a food to improve its nutritional quality. Cow’s milk (in the US) is fortified with vitamin D. Many available plant milks are fortified with both calcium and vitamin D. Some are also fortified with vitamin B12 and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, among other nutrients.

How do I know the plant-based milk is fortified?

Turn that sucker around and take a gander at the nutrition facts label. You can either look at the ingredients list or look at the section (typically at the bottom of the nutrition label) where vitamins and minerals are listed. There you will see how many milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg) of a micronutrient is available per serving.

Nutrition facts label on a plant-based milk with a circle drawn around the vitamin and mineral fortification amounts.

How much calcium and vitamin D do I need to look for?

To answer this question, you first need to answer another: how much calcium and vitamin D should I be consuming? The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 international units (IU) for infants up to age 12 months, 600 IU for people ages 1 to 70 years, and 800 IU for people over 70 years.

Calcium needs will depend mostly on your age, as well as if you are pregnant and/or lactating, or a post-menopausal woman. See the chart below for calcium needs.

Chart of calcium needs sorted by life stage group and mg/day
Chart adapted from here

Plant milks are often fortified with 300mg or more of calcium and 3mcg or more of vitamin D. (1mcg ~ 40 IU). Thus they can be considered a reliable source of dietary calcium and vitamin D.

Hold the Sugar, Please!

In addition to being fortified, I recommend looking for unsweetened (no added sugar) plant milks. Frequent consumption of added sugar, as found in sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) is associated with undesired weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart and kidney diseases, tooth decay, cavities, and more.

American adults consume around 77g of sugar on an average day; American children consume around 81g of sugar per day! The American Heart Association recommends adult women consume no more than 25g of added sugar per day; 36g per day for men. Keep in mind, though, added sugar is not a necessary nutrient. We can survive (if not thrive) without any added sugar in our diets. (Added sugar = sugar that does not occur naturally in the food. On ingredients lists you may see: cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrin, dextrose, etc.)

Most varieties of plant milks are going to have an unsweetened version- it will usually say so on the front of the carton. Of course, you can always look at the nutrition label- look for 0g next to “added sugar” or look for a sugar in the ingredients list.

Protein Content

If you are making the switch to plant-based milks and currently rely heavily on dairy, or if you have young kids, then you will want to choose a variety with a solid protein content. One of the most popular plant milks today is almond milk- however, it is not a great source of protein with around 1g per serving.

Look for plant milks with 5g or more protein per serving.

So What Do You Recommend?!

Keeping all of the above in mind, the plant-based milks I feel are best for most people are: soy milk and pea milk. In particular, I look for organic unsweetened soy milk, and unsweetened pea milk. These are going to be good choices if you have kids or you are wanting something very nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk. The brands I typically choose (not sponsored or an affiliate): Silk Organic Unsweetened Soy Milk and Ripple Unsweetened Original.

Illustration of soy milk and pea milk cartons side by side- these are the plant-based milks recommended by Sarah Whipkey, RDN

If you don’t have kids or do not rely on dairy or plant milk for much of your nutrition, experiment with different varieties and find what you like. Full disclosure: I prefer oat milk in my coffee! Stay tuned for a post on how to make your own plant milk!

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