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Nutrition

Nondairy Milk: How to Pick the Right One

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The milk section is doing a lot lately. While cow’s milk appears to be here to stay, the udder stuff is sharing the shelf with a whole lot of other stuff these days. Think of a nut, grain, seed, legume—someone, somewhere, has figured out how to make nondairy milk out of it.

“There’s a lot more awareness of different allergies and intolerances and lifestyles these days,” Marisa Moore, R.D.N., tells SELF. “And the nondairy market has really stepped up to meet those needs.”

Not to mention “people just like alternatives and choices,” Moore says—nondairy devotees and dairy lovers alike. “You don’t have to be vegan or allergic to dairy to explore plant-based milks,” as Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.N., author of Body Kindness, tells SELF.

While half the fun of plant-based milks is the sheer variety available, the number of options can also feel a little…overwhelming. “I [hear from] people that making a decision about which one to buy can sometimes be confusing,” Moore says.

If you’ve ever experienced a minor episode of decision paralysis in the dairy/nondairy aisle, we get it, and we’re here for you.

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Here’s what to keep in mind when choosing a nondairy milk.

Now, because these milks have different nutritional profiles, it might seem like that’s the right place to start when trying to decide what to go for. But the factor that’s going to really narrow down the (many) options for you is your personal preference.

The taste of plant-based milk really runs the gamut in terms of flavor (from neutral to distinctive) and texture (from creamy to watery). Many brands offer both plain and vanilla-flavored version of their drink, as well as sweetened and unsweetened. There’s also a lot of variety just from brand to brand, Moore points out, depending on the ingredients list. While some brands just use the plant matter and water, many will add various fats (like canola oil) to enhance the mouthfeel, as well as thickening, emulsifying, and binding agents (like xanthan gum, carrageenan, or sunflower lecithin) to smoothen the texture and keep the mixture from separating.

So we recommend not focusing just on nutritional profile—or at least not making it the first thing you look at. Because if you don’t like how a product tastes, who cares what the nutrition panel says? “It’s really about what it is that you enjoy,” Scritchfield says.

Then there’s what you’re gonna do with the stuff (other than drink it by the glass). “Whenever you’re choosing a nondairy milk, you have to ask yourself how you are planning to use it for cooking or baking,” Dalina Soto, R.D., L.D.N., founder and bilingual dietitian at Nutritiously Yours, tells SELF. For some everyday purposes like pouring over cereal, a lot of these are pretty interchangeable. But keep in mind that not all plant milks are as all-purpose as dairy milk, and some are much better suited for, say, whipping up a latte or making a savory soup base than others. (For instance, coconut milk might make for a bizarre cream of broccoli soup, while rice milk is pretty watery for a coffee creamer.)

Okay, now we can talk about the nutrition part. The first thing to remember here is that the nutrients found in plant milk are just waaaay different than those found in cow’s milk. “Nutritionally, it’s very difficult to find a dairy alternative that stacks up to milk,” Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D., of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF.

With the rare exception of soy milk (which we’ll talk more about shortly), you just don’t get the same protein punch from plant-based milk. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, and tons of people get all the protein they need and then some without ever consuming dairy. But if dairy milk has been a primary source of protein in your diet, it’s something to consider.

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