How to Choose the Healthiest Non-Dairy Milk, from an Expert
Plant-based milks have exploded in popularity over the past decade. Now, one-third of Americans drink non-dairy milk on a regular basis, according to a new report, and plant-based milk now accounts for 10 percent of the total milk market.
Whether you’re vegan or have lactose allergies, you may be one of the millions who have decided to ditch dairy and replace it with plant-based milk alternatives. Almond milk is the most popular milk alternative in the US, with oat milk as a close runner-up, among an increasingly wide variety of vegan milk options, including soy, sesame, coconut, cashew, and pistachio milk, which have all crowded out the first mover of the crop: soy milk.
But dairy-free does not equal additive-free. Non-dairy milk often contains sugar and emulsifiers that help give it the taste and texture of dairy milk. So what should you keep an eye out for on your next milk run? We asked a registered dietitian to tell us what's on the label and in your plant-based milk carton that are the ingredients to avoid. Then we recommend the best and worst non-dairy milk for your health.
Which ingredients should you avoid?
The terms “plant-based” and “dairy-free” are often synonymous with healthy, but this is a misconception. Not all plant-based milks are good for you. You may be surprised to learn that many contain harmful preservatives and additives, such as added sugar, lecithins, carrageenan, and even oil.
So which ingredients should you stay clear of when choosing plant-based milks? Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and the author of Recipe For Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life, tells The Beet, “The best thing to do is read the ingredient list and look for brands that have a short list of recognizable ingredients." Then, she said, avoid any brands that contain potentially harmful additives, such as guar gums, lecithins, and carrageenan.
Dr. Ellis Hunnes recommends avoiding milks with added sugars whenever possible because they provide empty calories and little nutritional value, and can lead to blood sugar spikes, insulin surges, and ultimately weight gain. “You’re better off buying the unsweetened version of your favorite plant-based milk than adding your own sweetener. Also, many of the breakfast cereals we add plant-based milk to already contain sugars, so you don't want to add more!”
If you’re prone to having adverse reactions to food additives, you need to know which ones are in your milk, Dr. Ellis Hunnes advises, “It’s not that preservatives and additives need to be avoided at all costs, but it’s better if we can reduce our intake. Some people have intolerances, or they may cause bloating for others, but many do not react to them. So it all depends on the person and their individual reactions to various ingredients. But, the fewer ingredients, the better.”
What ingredients to look for in plant-based milk
Fortunately, there are healthier plant-based milk brands that are unsweetened and contain fewer ingredients. Look for brands that have only the nut (almond, cashew), the grain (oat, rice), or the legume (soy, pea), plus safe ingredients like filtered water and sea salt. As a nutritional bonus, keep an eye out for brands fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Here are the nutritional criteria to look for when buying healthy plant-based milk brands:
- A short ingredient list: A good rule of thumb for most products is the fewer the ingredients, the better. It’s common for brands to have a few stabilizers added, but more than two or three is a no-no.
- Unsweetened or ‘no sugar added’: Regardless of your favorite type of plant-based milk, always opt for the unsweetened version. Almond or oat, it’s still delicious and will provide fewer calories.
- Carrageenan-free: Carrageenan is an emulsifier that’s often added to plant-based milks. It’s been found to increase inflammation and is associated with gastrointestinal issues. Although experts say more research is required to determine if carrageenan is safe for human consumption, it’s better to be safe than sorry and leave the plant-based milks with carrageenan on the shelf.
- Nutrient-fortified: Many plant-based milk brands are fortified with nutrients that are hard to acquire from diet alone, like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E, and B12.
The healthiest plant-based milk brands
Here is a list of healthy and not-so-healthy almond milk and oat milk brands to help guide you on your next grocery haul.
The healthiest almond milk: Elmhurst 1925 Unsweetened Almond Milk
With only two ingredients (filtered water and almonds), Elmhurst provides pure almond milk exclusively from the source. Nutritionists and consumers love it because it’s free of added sugars and carrageenan. Plus, it contains up to four times as many almonds compared to other brands and delivers a good amount of protein at 5 grams per serving.
Use sparingly or avoid: Pacific Foods Barista Series Original Almond Beverage
This almond milk is okay if splashed in the odd cup of coffee, but don’t make it a regular habit. Pacific Foods barista series almond milk contains eight grams of added sugars and questionable additives like carrageenan, gellan gum, and sunflower lecithin. It’s also not fortified with vitamins and minerals, making it an unappealing option compared to other plant-based milks out there.
The healthiest almond milk: Three Trees Organic Oat & Seed Oatmilk
Whether you choose Three Trees oat milk for beautiful bottle design or great taste, you can’t go wrong with their incredibly healthy (and short) ingredients list that’s free of added sugars and carrageenan. All ingredients are organic, which is essential for oat-based products because glyphosate has been shown to be present in non-organic oat products. What makes this oat milk truly great is it includes sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seeds, all of which add healthy fats and protein to boost the nutritional value.
Use sparingly or avoid: Chobani Oat Milk Vanilla Barista Edition
Chobani’s oat milk has a few good qualities: Organic, made from gluten-free oats, and carrageenan-free. Despite these health benefits, don’t drink this oat milk daily. With 10 grams of added sugars and no significant nutrient enrichment, this oat milk just doesn’t provide the nutritional bang for your buck. Also, it contains gellan gum and rapeseed oil, which is inflammatory due to its high omega-6 fat content.
Bottom Line: Choose plant-based milk with the fewest added ingredients on the label
When you switch to non-dairy milk, you should avoid additives in choosing the healthiest ones, whether they are made of almond, oat or other types. Watch out for added sugar and oils that are inserted to make the milk taste better.
For more plant-based milks ranked for health as well as taste, visit our Plant-Based Milk Beet Meter.