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By Sara Colman Carlson, RDN, CDE

Alt milk, plant-based milk alternatives, nondairy milk substitutes—all names for non-milk products that can be used instead of milk. Milk-like beverages made from grains, legumes, nuts and seeds have expanded on grocery store shelves, especially in the dairy case. Some of the first milk-like beverages to gain popularity include rice milk, almond milk and soymilk. Today beverages made from oats, hemp, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, coconut, flax and more have joined these. But what exactly is a plant-based milk? Is it better than cow’s milk?

Nutrient Comparisons

With the exception of soymilk, most milk alternatives are low in protein with 0 to 3 grams in a cup. However some products may contain added plant protein like pea protein. Cow’s milk has between 7 to 12 grams protein per cup (some have added milk solids to boost protein content). With the exception of coconut milk, most alt milks do not contain saturated fat. One cup of cow’s milk contains 1.5 grams (1% fat milk) to 4.5 grams saturated fat (whole milk). The amount of carbohydrate varies, depending on the base ingredient, which may naturally contain starches and sugars. Nut and seed beverages are usually the lowest with 2 to 4 grams carbohydrate per cup. If sweeteners are added the carbs can be similar to or higher than the 12 grams of carbs in a cup of milk. Oat milk also provides 1.2 grams of fiber per cup.

Commercially produced milk alternatives often have additional ingredients such as oil, thickeners, and fortified with nutrients, including vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12 and B2 (riboflavin) to equal or exceed the same nutrients in milk.

How It Is Made

Nondairy beverages are easy to make. However homemade is not pasteurized and must be consumed within a few days. To make “milk” soak a cup of the base ingredient (nuts, grains, legumes) in filtered water for 6 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator. Next, drain and place in a blender. Add 3 cups of filtered water and blend for 2 minutes. The result is a milk-like liquid that can then be filtered through cheesecloth or a nut milk bag to remove the solids from the liquid. Flavor the beverage with vanilla extract and sweeten with maple syrup, honey or any other desired sweetener, then chill in the refrigerator.

Benefits of Non-Dairy Milk Beverages

There are several benefits that may influence a person’s decision to trade cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives.

• Better for the environment compared to dairy farm milk production (although the amount of water required for almond trees is considerable)
• No animal cruelty involved in production
• Contains no milk protein or lactose so acceptable for those with milk allergy or lactose intolerance

Most plant-based milk alternatives can be used just like milk. Try one in coffee or tea, on cereal, in a smoothie. In most cases they work well as a milk sub in cooking and baking. You may find a favorite after trying different products.


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