Today’s dairy case contains numerous milk alternatives, derived from plant-based sources including soybeans, almonds, peas, oats and others. Made by processing water with nuts, grains, legumes or seeds, then straining out any solids and adding thickeners, emulsifiers and other ingredients, the resulting drinks vary widely in taste, thickness, nutrition and, in some cases, best uses.
Legumes, grains and nuts have qualities that naturally lend themselves to milky beverages. When cooked, legumes and grains both absorb water and become creamy. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee explains that the fats in nuts and soybeans feel naturally creamy, not greasy, on the tongue.
Grains, legumes and nuts also have specific flavor compounds, which are sometimes detectible in plant-based drinks. McGee explains that the unsaturated fatty acids in legumes and nuts can have notes of floral or mushroom flavor, while the phenolic compounds in whole grains can have vanilla and toasted flavors.
Most plant-based beverages are marketed for use in cereal, smoothies, coffee and occasionally as an ingredient in baked goods and cooked savory dishes. Depending on the production method, some can separate when heated such as with soups. While this separation is not harmful, it may be undesirable, depending on the recipe.
Plant-based milks do not have some components found in cow’s milk, including lactose and casein, which is helpful for those with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. Dairy milk from cows is pasteurized and fortified with vitamins A and D, but beyond that, cow’s milk is one ingredient in its natural form.
Some plant-based drinks have fortification of nutrients at levels above those of dairy milk; amounts vary by brand, and some evidence suggests absorption may not be equal to that of cow’s milk. Unsweetened and fortified nondairy milks may be a choice if a child is allergic to cow’s milk, is lactose intolerant or does not eat dairy foods, but are otherwise not recommended as a full replacement for dairy milk. Like dairy milk, plant-based alternatives should not be used as infant formula or introduced to a child before age 1.
To turn a plant into a beverage, more processing is required, including cooking a grain or hydrating a seed, removing most fiber-rich solids, and in many cases adding additional protein, fat, preservatives, flavorings, thickeners, emulsifiers or other additives. As a result, the nutritional profile of plant-based drinks varies widely.
Foods such as barley, short-grain rice, oats and split peas become creamier, more gelatinous or thicker than others, such as quinoa. These hydrophilic plants “melt” into water. Still, to yield a mouthfeel similar to cow’s milk, several issues need to be resolved, including grittiness, sandiness, separation of solids and thin, watery consistency.
Soy and pea proteins: These are used to increase the protein content of drinks made from other plants, which are generally much lower in protein than dairy milk (except for soy, which is a complete protein). Soy and pea proteins can provide one of the creamiest textures compared to other plant proteins because they are some of the most soluble. Both also help emulsify beverages into a unified liquid because they hold water well. While these proteins solve many processing problems, they’re usually used in an isolate form, meaning they have been stripped of some minerals, fiber and healthy fats.
Calcium fortification: For added nutrition that’s closer to cow’s milk, calcium is often added in the form of calcium phosphate or calcium carbonate.
Potassium fortification: Dairy milk is a natural source of potassium, with about 390 milligrams per serving of 2% milk. Dipotassium phosphate and potassium citrate are buffering agents used to regulate pH, prevent coagulation and stabilize a drink; in “barista” beverages, these ingredients also can balance out the low pH of coffee so curdling doesn’t occur when added to a hot liquid. Fortification also results in higher potassium content, with some beverages having more than dairy.
Emulsifiers and thickeners: Commonly used to keep fat and water from separating and solids from settling on the bottom of beverage cartons, soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin are two examples of emulsifiers. Lecithin is a mixture of fatty acids naturally derived from plants (as well as animals) that attracts both water and fats. Chicory root fiber, pectin and native starches, such as tapioca starch, can give a drink a thicker mouthfeel. Locust bean gum and guar gum are derived from vegetables, whereas xanthan gum is obtained via microbial fermentation; all are used to create a thicker, more stable liquid. Seaweed and algae gums including agar-agar, alginic acid and carrageenan polysaccharides act as stabilizers and thickeners. Gellan gum, which can grow on aquatic plants but also is produced commercially through bacteria, is often used with fortified beverages to keep calcium suspended so it doesn’t sink to the bottom of the container.
Natural flavorings: These may include cinnamon and vanilla, for example, and often are proprietary. Therefore, the U.S. Food and Drug Association allows “natural flavors” to be listed in the ingredients list.
Added sugars: Most plant-based milks have a plain variety, which is generally free of added sugars. Some drinks taste especially sweet due to the natural flavors of the plant, such as barley and oats. Beverages with flavors such as vanilla, chocolate and even “original” may contain added sugars. Check the label for cane sugar and other sweetener ingredients or look at the amount of added sugars.
Calcium-fortified soy: While milk-like drinks have been made from soybeans for centuries, commercial soy milks are produced using different processes than traditional Chinese and Japanese methods, which involved the use of natural enzymes to break down soybeans, yielding a milky product with a strong soy flavor.
With a similar nutrient profile to dairy, this is the only plant-based drink that is acceptable as a dairy alternative, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Fortified soy milk also is the only plant milk that is recognized as an acceptable substitute for dairy milk in federal nutrition programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
The fatty acid profiles and types of proteins differ between dairy milk and soy drinks, but the total grams of protein are similar: 7 to 9 grams per serving. Soy beverage also has comparable levels of vitamins A and D, riboflavin and more vitamin B12 due to fortification. Soy drinks are usually made with whole soy beans, not soy protein isolates, so they are included in the soy foods that may bear an authorized health claim in relation to their soy protein content and risk of coronary heart disease.
Soy beverages generally yield more comparable baked goods to those made with dairy milk, rather than items made with other plant drinks. Soy beverages can be used in cooked dishes, too, such as bread pudding, strata and custard, which is unusual for plant drinks.
Pea: A newer option on the market, it is made with yellow pea protein powder, which is easier to emulsify in a liquid than some other plants. Therefore, most manufacturers can use less emulsifiers and thickeners while still producing a thicker viscosity. The nutrition profile of some plain pea drinks is similar to soy beverages. One brand touts protein levels around 8 grams, 50% more calcium and half the carbohydrates of dairy milk. Some brands use fortification to provide DHA and up to 100% of the daily value for vitamin B12 , which is important for vegetarians and vegans.
Results from baking and heating pea beverages are similar to those with soy drinks. Pea beverages also are very versatile in smoothies and baked goods. When heated or added to other hot drinks, some brands become even thicker.
Almond: The nutrient profiles of different brands of almond beverage vary greatly. A few brands use only almonds and water, yielding a very watery consistency but a short ingredient list. Other brands add emulsifiers, thickeners and ingredients such as oats for a blended drink. In general, most almond drinks are low in protein and carbohydrates and are fortified with minerals and vitamins including vitamin E, which is naturally found in almonds.
Almond milks can sometimes add a pleasantly nutty flavor to baked goods, but this flavor is often undetectable when drinking it. Baked items made with nut milks tend to brown quicker and have a more golden hue and squishier texture than those made with dairy milk. While it is not recommended to boil almond beverages, they can be heated into sauces or soups and a slightly sweet flavor may be present.
Rice: Some are made with partially milled or brown rice, which is preferable because more of the germ and bran of the whole grain remain. Per cup, rice drinks generally contain 1 gram of protein, 2 to 3 grams of fat (mainly from canola, sunflower or safflower oils) and most are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D and B12 at levels close to cow’s milk. The carbohydrate count is 13 to 23 grams, with about 13 grams of natural starch — higher than most plant-based milks. Products made from rice may be a source of arsenic, so it is recommended to consume a variety of foods to limit exposure, especially for young children.
In general, rice drinks are very thin and watery, a consistency that lends itself to smoothies and other liquid recipes. Because of the beverage’s high carbohydrate content, most baked recipes can be successful. The bland, blank-canvas flavor is helpful when making savory dishes, but it should be heated at lower temperatures for the best texture in soups.
Coconut: While both are made from grated coconut flesh, refrigerated varieties of coconut beverage are diluted with more water than canned coconut milk. The refrigerated type also may contain more additives to maintain a thicker texture without the same amount of saturated fat in the dense canned kind. Different refrigerated brands often have unique fortification amounts, including a high amount of vitamin B12, which may be helpful for vegetarians and vegans. Coconut beverage is low in protein and carbohydrates, and many have about the same amount of total fat as 2% dairy milk but a higher amount of saturated fat.
Refrigerated coconut milk tends to have excellent frothing abilities and works well in smoothies and frothed warm drinks. Do not use it as a substitute for canned coconut milk in baked or stovetop recipes, since it is much lower in fat and the coconut flavor is less pronounced.
Sesame: Sesame beverage is rich in calcium, both naturally and through fortification (390 milligrams per 1-cup serving). One sesame drink maker uses sesame seeds after they are pressed for oil, upcycling a product previously considered food waste into a sesame protein concentrate. Other ingredients, such as pea protein, are added to increase the viscosity and protein (8 grams in regular and 4 grams in barista per 1 cup). Use the “barista” blend for frothy warm drinks and the regular version for baked goods to avoid altering the pH.
Oat: Because oat is a sweet grain that is naturally thick and gelatinous when hydrated, it produces a sweet and naturally thick drink. Surging in popularity, oat became the second best-selling plant-based drink in the United States in 2020, with almond as the top-selling plant drink and soy third.
The main ingredients are oats and water, with some additives and fortification. One manufacturer uses natural enzymes to break down the sugars in oats into maltose, creating a sweeter taste. The FDA considers these sugars “added,” since they were created during the production process.
In general, oat beverages have around 2 to 5 grams of fat, 16 to 19 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fiber (with 1 gram soluble and some brands retaining the healthful beta glucans), 2 to 3 grams of protein and are fortified with calcium, potassium and vitamins A and B12. Oat drinks perform well in baked goods and can produce a slightly sweet flavor when cooked.
Hemp: Hemp seeds are soaked until they swell and are then wet-milled and strained to produce this drink. Thickeners, emulsifiers, flavors and sweeteners are usually added. Because of their amino acid profile, hemp seeds are considered a source of high-quality protein. However, most hemp drinks contain only 2 to 3 grams of protein per serving. Hemp seeds also contain high amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. While amounts vary between brands, some hemp beverages contain up to 3.5 grams per serving of these healthy fats. Unsweetened varieties contain no carbohydrates. Hemp beverages are best used in cool preparations, as cooking and baking can produce a strong flavor.
Pistachio: As of May 2022, the three most widely available pistachio drinks do not have any added oils. This is unusual as sunflower, rapeseed/canola, coconut and palm oils are generally added to help emulsify the solids, fats and liquid and give plant drinks a creamy texture. Therefore, most of the total fat listed on the Nutrition Facts label is from pure pistachio unsaturated fats. These drinks provide varying amounts of potassium due to natural potassium and dipotassium phosphate, which may be added to avoid curdling when added to hot coffee, for example. Even without oils, pistachio drinks froth up nicely and cook well, with baked goods having textures similar to those made with almond and cashew beverages.
Barley: There are two barley milk beverages on the market as of May 2022. One is made from spent beer brewing grains, previously a waste product that is upcycled. While most plant-based drink companies market their products for sustainability, this spent-grains process is unique (although somewhat similar to the production of sesame drink). In the process, sugars are extracted from malted barley and sent to fermentation for beer; what’s left is a protein-rich substrate called “brewer’s spent grain.” Using a special process, the spent grain is converted into a highly soluble protein to make barley beverage.
Nutrition profiles for plain and flavored varieties range from 3 to 8 grams of protein, 0 to 12 grams of added sugars and 70 to 140 calories; fortification provides 35% of the daily value for calcium and 25% to 50% of the daily value for vitamin D. Using barley beverage in recipes with cold and warm preparations works well.
Cashew: This is one of the only milk beverages that can be made without straining after solids are blended with water. Because the nut is softer, some companies produce drinks in which more of the whole nuts remain. Depending on fortification levels, some brands fortify calcium at levels above the 300 milligrams naturally found in 1 cup of dairy milk. Some cashew beverages separate when cooked on the stove top. Baked goods turn out similar to those made with other nut drinks.
Blended: A mix of several plant-based beverages and ingredients, these drinks have qualities not found in a single-origin beverage. For example, pairing a fruit flavor such as banana with sunflower seeds to increase protein and healthy fats, or adding oats for viscosity and pea protein for thickness and protein. With the substantial growth in plant-based milks, the blended category continues to produce innovative options.