Soy beans, almonds, oats, and coconut, from which plant milks can be made
Photo: Lucas Zarebinski

Sales of nondairy milks are up 61 percent since 2012, according to a 2018 report from market research firm Mintel. A 2018 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 1,003 U.S. adults found that in the previous year, about a third of people consumed what are now commonly referred to as “plant milks” in place of cow’s milk. And 18 percent of Americans said they buy cow’s milk and plant milk equally.

“The biggest reason my patients choose nondairy milk is that they don’t tolerate dairy, or want to avoid animal products,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. But the trend reaches beyond the lactose-intolerant and vegan crowds. More than half of plant-milk buyers in CR’s survey said they think it’s healthier than cow’s milk.

And yet “many people are confused about plant milks’ nutritional profile,” says Ellen Klosz, M.S., a CR nutritionist. So our food testing team evaluated 35 plant milks—almond, coconut, oat, and soy—for nutrition and taste.

Not Purely Plant Parts

Our nutrition rating for plant milks factors in protein. Cow’s milk is naturally rich in that nutrient, as well as calcium, potassium, and several B vitamins, and is typically fortified with vitamins A and D. We rated plant milks according to how they stacked up against cow’s milk for these vitamins and minerals, but we didn’t include that rating in the Overall Score.

More on Healthy Eating

The results? Few of the drinks we tested match cow’s milk for nutrition. “Dairy products, including milk, supply the bulk of the calcium people get in their diets, and when you replace it with plant milk, you may be missing out,” Klosz says.

We also gave higher nutrition marks to products that didn’t contain certain added ingredients. Chief among them: added sugars. Plain cow’s milk naturally contains lactose, a type of sugar, but no added sugars. Plant milks with “original” or “plain” in their names often contain added sugars, as do flavored milks, so look for “unsweetened” on the label.

Other ingredients of concern are tricalcium phosphate and disodium phosphate, which add calcium and phosphorous to the milk or act as a stabilizer to help keep ingredients from separating. A high intake of these additives may increase the risk of kidney disease, heart disease, and bone loss, especially when calcium is low.

On the positive side, only one product in our tests (Almond Dream Almond Drink Unsweetened Original) contains carrageenan, a seaweed extract used in certain plant milks as a stabilizer or thickener. Carrageenan may trigger inflammation in people who suffer from colitis or other inflammatory bowel disorders. Some report relief when they cut products containing carrageenan out of their diets.

However, many of the nondairy milks we examined use other gums as stabilizers. These can be chemically processed, and in large doses some may cause abdominal discomfort.

Do They Help the Planet?

Not being nutritionally identical to cow’s milk doesn’t mean plant-based milks are a bad choice, provided you opt for those with the best nutritional profile and the fewest additives. And they can be healthier for the planet—something half of plant-milk buyers in our survey gave as a reason for their purchase—although drawing firm conclusions from studies can be challenging. Soy milk and oat milk may use less water and produce fewer greenhouse gases than dairy milk. Almond milk, though, had a higher water-usage footprint than soy or cow’s milk, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study found. No matter which type of plant milk you buy, choosing organic will reduce the environmental impact that results from pesticide use.

Holy Cow! Milk From a Nut?
Soy Milk
A top-tasting soy milk has a beany or nutty flavor rather than a grassy one, and isn’t bitter. Some have caramel or molasses notes.
Almond Milk
Those with the best sensory scores had a slight to moderate almond flavor but little to no chalkiness or astringency.
Oat Milk
Expect from the best: slightly sweet oat flavor and a smooth texture.
Coconut Milk
Texture can be thick or thin, but the coconut flavor comes
through in the best.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.