When Should I Worry About...

Oat Milk Vs. Almond Milk (Plus, All the Others In Between): Which Milk Is the Healthiest?

Dec. 14, 2021 - Katie McCallum

The most controversial part of "got milk" used to be whether you should be drinking whole or fat free. But our milk options have expanded significantly since then.

From soy to almond to oat — and even pea-based varieties — non-dairy milk alternatives are more popular and plentiful than ever. But that can make for confusion about which is actually the healthiest.

Do non-dairy milk options, also referred to as milk alternatives or plant-based milks, really come with the same health benefits as cow's milk? And are some milk alternatives healthier than others? Plus, was there anything wrong with dairy milk to begin with?

"If you ask me which milk is best, I will say it depends!" says Amanda Beaver, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "They each have their own nutritional nuances. It's important to know the general differences and carefully read nutrition labels."

The pros and cons of popular types of milk

Drinking milk can help you meet your daily protein and calcium needs, and some milks also contain vitamin D, B vitamins and potassium.

But Beaver warns that not every type of milk contains the same amount of each of these important nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Dairy Milk

"The major benefit of dairy milk is that it contains complete protein, meaning protein that has all of the building blocks needed for development, maintenance and growth of muscles, tissue repair and more," explains Beaver. "This isn't the case for every type of milk."

Benefits of dairy milk:

  • Contains high quality protein
  • Good source of calcium
  • Contains potassium

Potential disadvantages of daily milk:

  • Higher in saturated fat, unless drinking skim or 1%
  • Contains lactose and milk proteins that may upset some people's stomach

"Dairy milk can be higher in saturated fat depending on what percent fat you buy, but having a little fat in milk might not be a bad thing because our bodies need some fat to effectively absorb the vitamin D in the milk you're drinking!" says Beaver. "Plus, some research suggests the saturated fat in milk may not be as bad for us as the saturated fat from processed meat."

Ultra-Filtered Milk

"For people who want to reap the benefits of dairy milk but are looking to avoid lactose, ultra-filtered milk is a great choice," says Beaver. "It's essentially dairy milk that's been filtered and concentrated, which also makes it higher protein and lower carb than regular dairy milk."

Benefits of ultra-filtered milk:

  • Contains high quality protein
  • Good source of calcium
  • Contains potassium
  • Lactose free (for those who are intolerant)
  • Contains less milk sugars than regular dairy milk

Similar to regular dairy milk, ultra-filtered milk comes in the variety of fat percentages, including whole, 2%, 1% and skim.

Potential disadvantages of ultra-filtered milk:

  • Higher in saturated fat, unless drinking skim or 1%
  • Few brands to choose from

"Maybe the only issue with ultra-filtered milk is that it can sometimes be hard to get your hands on it since it's very popular right now," adds Beaver.

Soy Milk

"Soy milk is the plant-based milk that's been around the longest. It's made from soaking and grinding soybeans with water," says Beaver. "The great thing about soy milk is that its protein content is one of the highest of the milk alternatives and, like dairy milk, it contains complete protein."

Beaver says this makes it a great choice for vegetarians and vegans who are trying to meet their daily protein needs through a non-dairy milk alternative.

Benefits of soy milk:

  • Contains high quality protein
  • Contains potassium
  • Often fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12
  • Lactose free (for those who are intolerant)

Potential disadvantages of soy milk:

  • The presence of soy phytoestrogen worries some people
  • Some brands use genetically modified soybeans

"For those trying to avoid consuming GMOs, there are still soy milk options for you to consider," recommends Beaver. "Just be sure to choose a brand that's labeled as USDA organic. If you buy soy milk that's not USDA organic, it could have GMOs in it."

Fears have circulated in some circles about a claim linking soy phytoestrogens and breast cancer, but the American Institute of Cancer Research and American Cancer Society have said that women who consume soy products aren't at increased risk. There's also no evidence that soy products increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence in women who have already had breast cancer.

Almond Milk

"Almond milk is probably the most popular of the non-dairy milk alternatives," says Beaver. "The most important thing to know about almond milk, though, is that is contains virtually no protein unless the label indicates protein has been added."

Benefits of almond milk:

  • Very low calorie
  • Typically fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins (and sometimes vitamin A)
  • Naturally contains vitamin E and is sometimes fortified with even more of it
  • Lactose free (for those who are intolerant)
  • Has a naturally sweet flavor

"One of the unique things about almond milk is that it contains vitamin E, which can be a vitamin that's generally a little tricky to get through your diet," adds Beaver.

Potential disadvantages of almond milk:

  • Won't help meet protein needs (unless fortified with it)
  • Can be more "watery" than other milk alternatives
  • Some brands and flavors may contain added sugar
  • Some brands may not be fortified with calcium
  • Must be shaken vigorously before pouring to reap the nutritional benefits above

"If you're using almond milk to help meet your daily protein needs, it's critical to check the nutrition label and find a brand that's fortified with it," says Beaver.

Oat Milk

"Oat milk entered the scene a few years ago and has exploded in popularity since," says Beaver. "Unlike other milk alternatives, which come from nuts or legumes, oat milk comes from soaking and grinding grain with water — yet unsweetened varieties are still low in carbohydrates."

Benefits of oat milk:

  • Typically fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12
  • Lactose free (for those who are intolerant)
  • Has a rich and creamy consistency
  • Has a naturally toasty, sweet flavor

Potential disadvantages of oat milk:

  • Low protein
  • Typically contains added fat
  • Some brands and flavors may contain added sugar
  • Some brands may not be fortified with calcium
  • Must be shaken vigorously before pouring to reap the nutritional benefits above

Oat milk is one of the tastier milk alternatives, which is why it's become popular in coffee shops — used in everything from lattes to iced coffee.

"One of the reasons that oat milk is tastier is because fats are often added to it to make it thicker and have a more similar mouthfeel to milk," says Beaver. "As mentioned, fat isn't bad. I would focus more on how much added sugar the brand has. Also, watch out for oat creamers, they often contain even more added sugar per serving than oat milk."

Pea-Based Milk

"The benefit of pea-based milk over some of the other milk alternatives is that peas contain several vitamins and minerals," says Beaver. "Pea-based milk also contains more protein than some of the other non-dairy options, like almond milk and oat milk, making it a good option for vegetarians and vegans."

Benefits of pea-based milk:

  • Contains a good amount of protein
  • Contains potassium
  • Typically fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B vitamins
  • Lactose free (for those who are intolerant)
  • Has a rich and creamy consistency

Potential disadvantages of pea-based milk:

  • Some brands may not be fortified with calcium
  • Must be shaken vigorously before pouring to reap the nutritional benefits
  • Fewer brands to choose from

Which is the healthiest milk?

Whether it's going into your coffee, cereal, oatmeal, smoothie or a glass by itself, which type of milk is best for you?

"There's no milk variety that I would say is healthiest," says Beaver. "Which is best for you depends on your diet, your nutrition goals and what you're using milk for. I keep several types in my fridge and use each differently."

For instance, Beaver says she uses a splash of oat milk in her iced coffee and keeps calcium-fortified almond milk in her fridge to have with dinner.

However, Beaver does have a few tips for those who prefer a plant-based milk:

  • Choose one that has no added sugar or is labeled as "unsweetened"
  • Make sure it's fortified with calcium
  • Shake very well before pouring

"One of the most important things to know about plant-based milks is that the fortified vitamins and minerals fall out of solution and settle to the bottom of the container. They must be resuspended before pouring," says Beaver. "If you're not vigorously shaking a milk alternative, you're not getting all of the calcium and minerals listed on the label."

Does almond milk have calcium?

"With almond milk being one of the more popular milk alternatives, I'm asked whether almond milk is a good source of calcium quite often," says Beaver. "Some organic brands aren't fortified with it, so be sure to check the label and get your calcium through other foods if needed. Better yet, be sure to choose an almond milk brand that is fortified with calcium."

And people who really need to be sure they're getting enough calcium in their diet, such as those with osteoporosis, may need to be even more conscious of almond milk and other milk alternatives.

"We know from studies of dairy milk that about 30% of the calcium is absorbed by the body," explains Beaver. "With milk alternatives, we unfortunately don't know much about how much calcium gets absorbed."

This is why it might be better for someone with osteoporosis to choose dairy milk over a plant-based alternative until we have more research. Or, at the very least, take the "shake well" instructions very seriously.

Which type of milk has the most protein?

Whether you're vegetarian, vegan or just someone who takes muscle recovery very seriously, you might be wondering which milk has the most protein.

"Dairy milk not only has more protein than plant-based alternatives, but the protein it contains is higher quality," says Beaver. "And ultra-filtered dairy milk contains even more high quality protein than regular milk."

If you prefer a milk alternative to dairy, soy milk is a good protein-forward option since the protein it contains is also high quality. Pea-based milk is another milk alternative with a good natural protein content.

"Whatever you do, don't assume almond milk and oat milk are good sources of protein," warns Beaver. "Almond milk and oat milk typically contain only very small amounts of it."

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...