09 December 2011

non-dairy milks, an exploration

We've been down with non-dairy milks for awhile now. In fact, we rarely ever buy cow's milk these days, preferring instead to use unsweetened vanilla almond milk for most things. After experimenting with soy milk and almond milk, I decided to get friendly with all the non-dairy milks I could find. Except hazelnut. I didn't even realize hazelnut milk was a possibility until after I set up this little project, so forgive me. I'll try it soon.

Why non-dairy milk? Maybe you have dairy sensitivities. Maybe you are vegan for other reasons. Maybe you are just an adventurous eater and drinker. It's good to try new things and switch up your habits from time to time. At least I think it is. I eat way more things now than I did even a few years ago.

I present to you my unscientific, imperfectly executed round-up of non-dairy milks. When available, I compared the unsweetened, original flavored versions that are available in the refrigerated section. I also chose the most mainstream brand for each milk, in an effort to pick ones that are widely accessible and easy to find. Exceptions are noted below. Generally speaking, I don't pour myself a glass of milk to drink. I bake and cook with it, use it as the base for my daily smoothies and sometimes pour it into my coffee or tea. So if you are a die-hard, drink a glass of milk person, I can't say which non-dairy version might suit you best.

Coconut Milk
In addition to the cans of coconut milk you've probably used for making curries or sweet desserts, you can also buy a coconut milk beverage that has reduced fat and richness of straight-up, pure coconut milk. It's still sweet and creamy and makes a great substitute for coffee creamer and for use in Asian-inspired soups and sauces. For desserts, your best bet is the canned variety of coconut milk.

Notes: Unsweetened coconut milk (for drinking) is really tough to find, and the Original or Vanilla versions are much tastier. My two cents. Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging.

Brands: Silk Pure Coconut (Original, Vanilla) & So Delicious (Original, Unsweetened, Vanilla)

Soy Milk
Soy milk is a popular  alternative that is almost as high in protein as cow's milk and is higher in calcium. It's also packed with magnesium and Vitamin D. Soy milk separates less during heating than many other non-dairy milks, so it is great for cooking and baking as well as regular ol' drinking. It's the non-dairy milk most people know about and are familiar with because it's been around for a long time.

Notes: Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging. Unsweetened versions exist, but I couldn't find one for this tasting so I went with Original. Chocolate soy milk is one of my favorite treats, especially right after a long run.

Brands to try:  Silk (available in lots of flavors, including seasonals), 8th Continent (lots of flavors, including light and fat-free varieties) & West Soy.

Oat Milk
Oat milk is really tasty. It's sweet, oat-y & creamy. I hadn't tried it before this grand experiment, but I think I'll keep it in the rotation for awhile. Oat milk has more calcium than cow's milk and is also one of the lowest-fat options of the non-dairy milk crowd. I was surprised to note that it ranks second-highest on the protein scale for non-dairy milks, coming in right behind soy.

Notes: I've only seen this in shelf-stable packaging and I haven't seen an unsweetened version.

Brands to try:  Pacific Natural Foods (Original & Vanilla)

Almond Milk
Almond milk has a delicious, creamy consistency similar to soy milk. It's great in smoothies, cereal and for drinking. Almond milk has a slightly nutty flavor (as you might expect), is high in flavonoids and Vitamin E (which lower cholesterol) and contains as much calcium as cow's milk. I like to put a splash of almond milk in my tea. Almonds are one of the healthiest nuts you can eat and almond milk is the lowest calorie option of the bunch.

Notes: Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging. Our current fave of the non-dairy milks is Unsweetened Vanilla Almond. Give it a try.

Brands to try: Blue Diamond Almond Breeze (Original, Vanilla & Chocolate in both Sweetened and Unsweetened versions) and Silk Pure Almond (Original, Vanilla, Dark Chocolate & Unsweetened)

Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is super nutritious. It contains the same amount of calcium as cow's milk, is rich in heart-healthy omegas and contains all ten essential amino acids. Bam! It does have a little bit of a grassy or nutty flavor, which I find to be awesome. I've heard it is distinctly "not great" in coffee, but I haven't tried that myself.

Notes: I've only seen this in shelf-stable packaging.

Brands to try:  Living Harvest Tempt (Original, Vanilla, Chocolate & Unsweetened Original, Vanilla)

Rice Milk
Rice milk is light and sweet but lacking in many nutrition categories. Your best bet might be to buy a rice milk blend or enriched rice milk product that has added vitamins and minerals. It's good for drinking since it isn't too thick. I rarely use this in my smoothies, though, because I like to add a bit more creaminess.

Notes: Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging. Try a rice-soy blend, like the one from Eden Organic.

Brands to try: Rice Dream (Available in lots of flavors, including crazy ones like Chocolate Chai, Vanillla Hazelnut & Horchata. Also comes in Enriched and Heartwise varieties.)

And because I took the nerdy time to create this spreadsheet, I might as well share it. Click to enlarge.

For full disclosure, I almost always buy vanilla flavored milk. For drinking, smoothies and making desserts, I like vanilla better. For savory cooking though, you'd be smart to stick with original unflavored versions. In conclusion... they are all good for different uses.  Rice milk is the least nutritious, hemp milk is pretty much a superfood with its complete protein and omegas, and soy milk rivals cow's milk in terms of protein. I happen to love almond milk, find coconut milk a little too sweet for most things and I think oat milk is a tasty new find. And, of course, all non-dairy milks are cholesterol-free. Just to put aside another myth, you should note that most of these milks actually have as much or more calcium than cow's milk. Surprised?

I know I left out your favorite brand of such-and-such non-dairy milk, so tell me about it in the comments. What is your preference for non-dairy milk? Did you know you can make some of your own non-dairy milk? It's true. If you... say... had a Vitamix blender, it's actually really easy. Stay tuned...


  1. This is great - very informative! I did not know that these alternative milks have such high calcium levels - awesome!

  2. Wow, this is great! I've always been a little hesitant to go non-dairy, considering I grew up on a dairy and am now further spoiled by only having to walk, oh, maybe 100 yards to get my milk and cream each day. It feels like betrayal. But I'm hoping to drop a few lbs and get healthier in 2012 and looking for alternatives. I think adding some almond milk to smoothies, like you suggested, might be a good thing to try out! Thanks for the super-useful information.

  3. almond breeze unsweetened original. it's usually the only milk we have on hand. in my opinion, almond breeze is way smoother than silk's almond milk (as well as soy and rice milks). the biggest disadvantage is that it's not fortified, but i suppose that's what vegetables are for...

  4. i <3 your spreadsheet. and at the risk of sounding ridiculouly like Buddy the Elf, spreadsheets are my favorite.

    also, and i'm sure (i hope) i'm not the only one who would find this interesting, i'd love to see how you rank them on taste. :)

  5. Betsy- I know! I was pumped to see all that calcium goodness in there.

    D- I hear ya. The past year or so I've been reading nutrition books non-stop and decided I would cut back on my dairy & meat consumption for health reasons. But I haven't cut it all out yet :)

    Corrie- I'm with ya. Almond Breeze is superior.

    Allie- Spreadsheets are my favorite too :) I will update with a taste ranking!

  6. Deanna just sent me over here and I've got to say this is fantastic! I just wrote (a much less involved and informed) post on organic dairy vs the unsweetened almond/coconut milk on my blog. And I'm so glad to have found this. I didn't even know about hemp milk or oat milk but I am excited to try both.


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