Oat Milk, Pea Milk and Hemp Milk—Oh My! - Virtua Article

Oat Milk, Pea Milk and Hemp Milk—Oh My!

By Jessie (Fritton) Funchion, MS, RD, LDN, Registered Dietitian
Virtua Weight Loss and Wellness Center

Have you noticed the growing variety of dairy-free milk alternatives showing up on store shelves and in the refrigerated “dairy” department? That’s because demand for these products is growing rapidly for wide variety of reasons. 

Whether you’re following a plant-based diet, have a dairy intolerance or allergy, or just want to try something different, these new milk alternatives can help you meet your nutritional needs and add variety to your diet. 

Why choose dairy-free milk alternatives?

Plant-based diets that focus on fruits and vegetables and exclude animal proteins such as meat, dairy, and eggs have always been popular among people who are concerned with animal welfare and the environment. However, recent research showing that plant-based diets can prevent and reverse heart disease has made even more people interested in avoiding animal products. 

And non-dairy milk alternatives aren’t just for people who follow plant-based diets. Because non-dairy milk doesn’t contain lactose, a sugar only found naturally in dairy milk, many people who have dairy allergies or lactose intolerance also use non-dairy milk alternatives. 

How does the nutritional value of dairy-free milk compare to cow’s milk?

Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein per cup. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), soy milk is the only nutritionally acceptable substitute for cow’s milk. That’s because it’s the only non-dairy milk alternative that also contains 8 grams of protein. 

When it comes to other types of non-dairy milk, the nutritional content can vary. Flax, hemp, and pea milk all come close to 8 grams of protein per cup, but the exact nutritional content can be different from brand to brand. Other non-dairy milk alternatives typically have 2 grams of protein per cup or less. 

But while other non-dairy milk alternatives may not have the same amounts of protein and other nutrients as cow’s milk, they may still have a place in your healthy diet. 

What are some of the newest types of dairy-free milk?

Almond and soy milk have been around for years and are usually easy to find in your local grocery store. Soy and almond milk are also among the most cost-effective, non-dairy milk options and tend to be low-fat and low-calorie (although this may vary depending on the brand). However, soy and almond milk could cause problems if you have soy or nut allergies. 

Although there has been some controversy around soy milk’s effect on the body, there’s no conclusive evidence that suggests drinking soy milk is harmful. Some types of soy milk may include genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are not found in nature. If GMOs are a concern for you, then opt for an organic brand. 

Here are a few other dairy-free milk alternatives

  • Coconut milk. Coconut milk that’s sold in a carton in the dairy case at grocery stores is diluted and is higher in fat and lower in protein than cow’s milk. It may be a good option to use in small amounts, such as for coffee creamer. Coconut milk sold in a can is typically thicker and used for cooking. 
  • Oat milk. Oat milk is higher in calories, carbohydrates, and fat. However, it is also higher in fiber, which may help you feel fuller and may provide heart-healthy benefits. 
  • Hemp milk and flax milk. Hemp milk and flax milk are higher in fat than cow’s milk but lower in protein, carbohydrates, and calories. They also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which you can only get from eating foods. 
  • Rice milk. Rice milk is high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. It contains about the same number of calories as cow’s milk but has few health benefits. Also, rice milk has been found to contain high levels of arsenic, which is a chemical found in the environment that can cause health problems. 
  • Pea milk. Pea milk is made from yellow peas and has about the same amount of protein per cup as cow’s milk. It’s becoming more readily available in grocery and big box stores. 

What are some other tips for choosing dairy-free milk alternatives?

One of the most important things to remember when choosing non-dairy milk is to make sure it fits with your overall dietary goals. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, look for a low-calorie alternative such as almond milk. If protein is a concern, you could choose higher-protein, non-dairy milk or consider adding protein powder. However, adding protein powder could give your non-dairy milk a chalkier consistency and affect the taste. 

Some non-dairy milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Although fortified non-dairy milk can help you to meet your nutritional needs, you should aim for varieties that have fewer ingredients and are minimally processed. And, it’s always a good idea to stick to unsweetened non-dairy milk alternatives to limit added calories and sugar. 

If you have questions about a non-dairy milk alternative that might be right for you, consult with a registered dietitian for some suggestions. Then, you can experiment with different types of dairy-free milk to find a taste and texture you enjoy. 

For more information on how a registered dietitian can help you achieve your healthy eating goals, call 1-888-847-8823.

Updated August 30, 2018

Registered Dietitian

Make an appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian

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