The Healthiest Milk Alternative Is Complicated, But This Chart Breaks It Down

Milk alternatives are trendier than ever, but the ingredients and nutritional facts can get hazy.

If you venture to almost any coffee shop or grocery store, you're more than likely to find a variety of milk options. Gone are the days where your biggest worry was whether you wanted to skim or 2 percent, because now the options are endless. All of the different brands and alternatives to choose from can feel intimidating. Should you get soy? Almond? What about coconut milk? The decision can be difficult if you don't know the benefits you could be getting out of each option. If you've always wondered, what the healthiest milk alternative isThe Dr. Oz Show correspondent and director of the Cleveland Clinic for Functional Medicine, Dr. Mark Hyman, breaks down all of the milk info you need to know.

More and more, Americans are shying away from cow's milk. According to the Plant-Based Foods Association, plant-based milk now represents about 15 percent of the total milk market. The type of milk you should buy is ultimately dependent on the nutritional information that is most important to you (and of course keeping any allergies in mind). Whether you're vegan, have an allergy to lactose, nuts, or soy, or have any dietary restriction in between, there is an option for you.

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This type of milk can be low-calorie — if you pay attention.  

Each type of milk has its own range of calories depending on the brand. Dr. Hyman says that you should always check the label on milk packaging before you buy to make sure it's not too high in sugar (or added sugar) or calories. Almond milk is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to added sugars and a high-calorie count. If you're not careful, you could be adding over 60 calories into your cereal by choosing this option. But not all hope is lost for almond milk; certain brands of unsweetened almond milk can have as little as 25 calories, so pay attention to the labels.

Other honorable mentions in the low-calorie category are oat and soy milk, which both typically have less than 100 calories per serving. 

Do milk alternatives have as much protein as cow's milk?

If protein is something you want to gain from your milk intake, Hyman says that soy milk is your best option. Soy milk can have anywhere from seven to 12 grams of protein per serving, while cow's milk, comparatively, has about eight grams of protein per serving. A close second to soy milk is pea milk, a newer, up-and-coming milk alternative, which also typically has about eight grams of protein, according to NBC News.

I'm on a low-sugar diet, which milk should I avoid? 

Most milk alternatives have some added sugars, but Hyman says oat milk tends to be the worst offender. An average serving of oat milk could have up to 17 grams of sugar which, for a serving of milk, is a lot. According to Hyman, most other milk alternative only have up to about seven grams of sugar. Regular cow's milk doesn't have added sugars, but it still has about 13 grams of natural sugar in it because of the lactose, according to Everyday Health

So, what's the best milk alternative overall?

If you're looking for milk that hits almost all of health and versatility benchmarks, Hyman says coconut milk is your best bet — and his personal favorite as well. Coconut milk is the lowest in sugar and calories and it's also the best substitute to use in recipes. You should make sure to buy light, unsweetened coconut milk to get the most benefits out of your milk. According to Medical News Today, coconut milk can even stimulate weight loss and promote heart health.

While none of these alternatives have the same amount of calcium that cow's milk provides, Hyman says that the benefits of drinking milk alternatives outweigh the potential risks  and there are other ways you can get your daily dose of calcium. It's important to consider what health benefits are most important to you and then choose your milk based off of that. Now that you're an expert on all things milk, you can be a smarter shopper and find brands that work best for you and your budget. 


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