Milk isn’t what it used to be. It might go by the same name, but most of the products next to the 2% are definitely not dairy these days.
With so many options like hemp milk, cashew milk or rice milk, we have to wonder, “What is it, really? And is it healthy—or just one more marketing gimmick?”
We spoke with LA-based celebrity nutritionist Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD, to help explain how six types of plant-based milk alternatives get made, and what nutrition/dietary plans they fit.
1. Nut Milk – Cashew, Almond, Macadamia, Hazelnut
You’ve probably seen the commercials for Silk or Almond Breeze. For these, nuts are soaked in water for 8-12 hours, ground in a blender, and then squeezed through cheesecloth, a fine sieve strainer, or a specialized “nut milk bag” to extract the liquid.
Good For: Low calorie and low carb/low sugar diets. Because there’s not a lot of protein, these are good if you’re on a protein restrictive diet or part of a weight loss diet. They’re also excellent in a smoothie.
Pro Tip: “I think of nut milk not as a milk substitute, because they’re somewhat watery and low protein, but more as a good smoothie base,” says Dr. Lenchewski.
2. Coconut Milk
Made from blended coconut water and coconut meat, (about 1-1 proportions), this is the closest to actual dairy milk—not because of the nutrients but because it has healthy fats. Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are easily broken down for fuel. Also, unlike other milk, this one will keep you full.
Good For: Coconut is used a lot in paleo diets. It has some carbs, but it can be mixed with nut milk to create a beverage that’s still got healthy fats, but lower carb/calorie.
Pro Tip: Coconut milk is great for cooking creamy soups and curries.
3. Rice Milk
Rice milk is cooked processed rice and filtered water that has been blended superfine with any solids strained.
Good For: An athletic person looking for a higher sugar and carbohydrate content. This has the most carbs of any milk or milk substitute. Perhaps have it before or after working out, to get carbs back into your system and recoup the glycogen that your muscles need.
Pro Tip: ICYMI, this is essentially liquefied rice. If you’re low-carbing, steer clear. Also, if you’re buying a grocery store brand, check and re-check the ingredients—rice milk tends to be full of additives just to make it reasonably nutritious.
4. Hemp Milk
Made with shelled hemp seeds (also known as hemp hearts), or with hemp protein powder. Hemp hearts are mixed with water and blended. Some people choose not to strain the hemp seed milk—just grind the seeds super-fine, or use powder.
Good For: Vegans and those on a low-carb diet. Also, great for people who are allergic to tree nuts.
Pro Tip: Because hemp milk has a strong flavor, this is another one that’s great mixed with nut milk. Natural food entrepreneur Diana Stobo sells powdered hemp-cashew milk by the bag in Raw Chocolate or Wild Vanilla. This is easier than making your own but still has only natural ingredients.
5. Oat Milk
Oat milk comes from oats that have been soaked anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight. The soaked oats get rinsed, and filtered water is added. Next, everything is blended (but only medium-fine, not to a paste) and strained. Some store-bought brands also add thickening agents, but if you home-make it, generally the only other ingredients are a bit of vanilla extract and perhaps a natural sweetener.
Good For: With more fiber content than other milk substitutes, oat milk could be helpful in lowering cholesterol and keeping blood sugar in check
Pro Tip: If you’re trying to stay away from gluten, don’t go for the oat milk next time you’re at the grocery store.
6. Flax Milk
Here we have another seed milk that’s simple to make. Just grind the flax seeds super-fine, ideally as fine as espresso, and blend with water. Most people also add in a little vanilla extract or dates to taste.
Good For: People with nut allergies, gluten sensitivity, and/or lactose intolerance.
Pro Tip: Another popular recipe for flax milk is simply to add water to cold pressed flax seed oil. Manufacturers often add nutrients like vitamin D and thickening agents like tapioca starch to make this a more viable milk alternative.
For more stories like this, check out What The Hell Is Gluten And Is It Really That Bad?. For more information on nutritionist Shira Lenchewski, MS, RD check out her site Shira RD.