“Soy and nut milk have healthier fat profiles than cow’s milk,” Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said. Coconut milk, like cow’s milk, is high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels. Soy milk and the various nut milks without added sugar — such as almond, walnut, peanut, cashew, hazelnut or macadamia nut milk — as well as hemp and flax milks are higher in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, and also tend to have fewer calories than cow’s milk. Oat milk, without added sugar, is high in fiber, and calories are comparable to cow’s milk.
Soy milk is one of the only nondairy alternatives that matches cow’s milk’s eight grams of protein per cup. But protein deficiency is not a concern in the United States, Dr. Willett said, especially for adults. If, however, you are looking to get a significant amount of protein from milk, check the labels on different products, as amounts vary widely among the alternatives to cow’s milk.
Both Ms. Romano and Dr. Willett also suggest checking labels to look for alternatives that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which may help with bone health. “We definitely need vitamin D,” Dr. Willett said, though we probably don’t need the high levels of calcium that many Americans think they need. “When we look at dairy directly, we don’t see that high dairy consumption reduces fracture rates in terms of the evidence,” he said.
They also advise watching out for lots of added sugar in flavored milk alternatives. Ideally there would be no added sugar in the product, but generally aim for below 10 grams per serving.
One last consideration: the planet. “It’s important to look at everything through both a health lens and an environmental lens at this point in time,” Dr. Willett said. Dairy production is tied to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and requires a lot of water. “So for the environmental footprint, alternative milks are actually desirable.”
Sophie Egan is the author of “How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet” (Workman, 2020).