Milk. It can be a curse word some places if not placed after almond, coconut, cashew, flax, hemp, pea, or that newly famous oat. Most of us are just taking the words of our barista or our friends on instagram for what milk we should be using. So, rather than just follow the trend, let's break down what each milk provides and where you are getting what's right for you, your goals, and your body.
Almond milk has been the milk alternative of choice since soy lost some of its mojo a few years ago. Almond milk is a good alternative that is lower in calories than dairy milk and has a good amount of calcium (when fortified). The downside, majority of it is water (speaking of water, it takes a toll on the environment to grow almonds). In a 2017 article published in the NYTimes it takes 15.3 gallons of water to grow 16 almonds! Craziness.
Coconut milk is water mixed with the white flesh of the coconut. It is a lower in calorie option than dairy milk but has little protein or carbohydrates. It contains a good amount of fat coming primarily from medium chained tryglycerides (MCTs) that are in the saturated fat family. There has been conflicting findings about MCTs. Some studies have found that it is good at keeping you feel full and satiated, while others found it can raise the LDL "bad" cholesterol. These studies weren't looking at coconut milk MCTs specifically, so take that all with a grain of salt. There is limited to no protein in it, so if you are a vegetarian or vegan looking to get some extra protein this may not be the best option for you. Also, due to the conflicting evidence it might be better to keep coconut milk to the occasional choice.
Hemp milk is water mixed with hemp seeds. Hemp milk is a great choice because it has all the essential amino acids, high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and low in carbohydrates. When you are looking for a nutrient dense option - this one is high on the list. The downside is that it is a thinner milk. So, if you are looking for a creamy milk replacement this would not be the milk for you. It is yummy though with a nutty taste! Also, because it is high in omega-6 fatty acids, you want to make sure you are getting other sources of omega-3s throughout your day to maintain a higher ratio of omega-3:omega-6. This helps keep inflammation at bay.
Flax milk is a relatively new milk getting some attention right now. Flaxseeds are a great source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Flax milk is flaxseeds and water - are you sensing a theme with all these milks yet? Omega-3 fatty acids and fiber both help balance hormones and provide a ton of health benefits including helping your skin look fresh, helping keep you full, having an affect on your mental health, and reducing inflammation. The down side of flax milk that you can buy commercially is the fiber is lost and a lot of gums or emulsifiers are added to give it a thicker texture. Making this at home would be a great option to ensure you are getting all the beneficial parts of the flaxseed or find a company that keeps all the benefits of the seed rather than losing it.
Oat milk is having a moment right now. If you haven't heard of it, you will. Your friend who just tried it at their favorite coffee shop is about to start gushing, and rightly so - it is delicious. Oat milk is made from - you guessed it - oats and water. Oat milk has a naturally sweet taste and is mild in flavor. It is great in your matcha, latte, smoothie, or cereal. The downside is that it has about double the amount of carbohydrates than dairy milk. The even bigger downside is that some manufacturers lose the fiber that is so beneficial in oats and add sugar, oils, salts, and gums during the process. That being said, there was a study in 1999 that showed drinking oat milk reduced total cholesterol and LDL in men. This means there was still a soluble form of fiber present (beta-glucan) that was working to help the heart out and decrease cholesterol. I am going to guess the oat milk of yesterday is not the same as the oat milk of today. So, if you want to get all the benefits I would highly recommend making your own or keeping the oat milk to once in awhile.
Pea protein milk is made from yellow peas that are one of the best plant based sources of protein available. This milk is the most comparable to dairy milk in texture and protein. There is 8g of protein in 1 cup of the brand Ripple milk. It is also a great source of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, and omega-3s. I have been giving Ellis this milk since he turned 1. The unsweetened version is low in sugar, carbs, and calories. It is thicker and creamier than an almond milk or coconut milk. Pea protein milk is also more environmentally friendly than almond. The downside to this is the vitamin D is D2 which is less absorbable than D3. So, make sure that you are getting other sources of D3 - the sun, wild caught salmon, or sardines.
All of these milks have their pros and cons. The key is finding first what milk(s) work for your dietary needs, and second what milk(s) you like the taste of. The key to all of these milks is try to mix them up. Don't just use one all the time. It will help you keep a varied diet even within your milk. Also, make sure you are checking the labels on any of the commercially available milks you purchase. Choose the unsweetened plain versions to ensure you aren't getting absurd amounts of sugar. You can also make these milks at home for much less and get more of the nutritional content. So, try it out and see how they can fit into your lifestyle!