12 Popular Dairy-Free and Plant-Based Milk Alternatives, Explained

Whether you're lactose intolerant, vegan, or just looking to cut down on dairy, these dairy-free milk substitutes will surely become a staple in your diet.

Walking through the dairy section at your local grocery store has just as many plant-based beverage, yogurt, and creamer options as milk produced by cows these days. If you're used to getting your vitamin D and calcium from cow's milk, you may be wondering what all these different "milks" are. Since they didn't come from an animal, even the labeling system has been under fire by consumers and the FDA in recent years. As concerns over dairy allergies grow and more people try out vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, the nondairy milk industry is expected to be valued at more than $35 billion by 2026. While soy milk and almond milk may be familiar, new nondairy milk alternatives made from grains like quinoa, hemp seeds, and even peas are hitting shelves. We'll walk you through the basics the most popular (as well as up-and-coming) plant-based milk alternatives out there and help you choose the right substitute for your recipe (or to sip on with breakfast). We've also got tips for making your own milk substitutes at home. If you have dairy allergies or food intolerances, these milk alternatives could be just the drink for you!

Almond Milk

After soy milk, almond milk quickly rose to the top of popular nondairy milks. (Though we did recently find that production of this nut milk could be harmful to our honey bees.) You can buy almond milk at the store, but you can also make your own by soaking almonds in water, then blending them into milk with more water. High in vitamins and low in calories (but also low in protein), it tastes nutty, a little sweet, and creamy, so it's tasty from the glass or over cereal. Although it can be used in sweet recipes and most savory dishes, some people consider it too sweet for savory dishes so stick to adding in smoothies and desserts.

Average 8-ounce serving: 30 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g carbohydrates; 9 g sugar; 1 g protein.

Avocado Milk

The beloved green fruit known for making creamy dips is the newest addition to the nondairy milk family. Avocadomilk was formerly only available in New Zealand and Australia but it's now making its way to the US this year in 122 markets. Instead of being combined with solely water, Avocadomilk is made from a blend of oats and freeze-dried avocados. Avocadomilk will be available in regular (which yes, does maintain the fruit's green color) and cacao for a natural chocolate flavor. The nondairy milk brand uses avocados that consumers are less likely to buy (imperfect looking but still perfectly delicious) to prevent food waste. Its farms are all irrigated with rainwater only and bottled in 100% recycled plastic with labels made with vegetable inks.

Average 8-ounce serving: 90 calories; 4 g fat; 14 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 2 g protein.

cashew milk in glasses with striped straws
Matt Clark

Cashew Milk

Like almond milk, cashew milk is low in calories. It's also low in protein. Make your own cashew milk at home by soaking raw cashews in water overnight, then blending them into milk in your blender with a few added cups of water. Like other nut milks, cashew milk is rich and creamy and tastes slightly nutty. Drink it on its own, or use it for thickening smoothies and as a substitute for cow's milk in most desserts.

Average 8-ounce serving: 40 calories; 4 g fat; 2 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 1 g protein.

Chia Milk

The dark, nutty grains you used to see on Chia Pets are now being used to add fiber and healthy fats to baked goods and to naturally thicken breakfast puddings, but they're being turned into milk, too. The brand Mamma Chia is working to bring the first commercially-sold chia milk product to stores starting this spring. The organic milk has 800 mg of nutrient-rich Omega-3s that are beneficial to heart health and zero added sugar.

Average 8-ounce serving: 60 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 2 g protein.

Slow Cooker Thai Chicken Soup
Blaine Moats

Coconut Milk

There are two different kinds of coconut milk: coconut milk beverage and coconut milk sold in a can. Not meant for drinking, thick and creamy canned coconut milk is prepared from the meat of the coconut. You'll find the canned version in desserts such as Paleo-friendly ice cream and savory soups. Coconut milk beverage is thinner and can be drunk straight out of a glass and used as a substitute for regular milk. It's higher in fat than some other milk substitutes but lower in protein. If you choose to add it to savory dishes, you'll probably be able to notice the coconut flavor, but it won't be overpowering. Try it in our Thai cauliflower curry for your next Meatless Monday.

Average 8-ounce serving: 45 calories; 4.5 g fat; 2 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 0 g protein.

Hemp Milk

When it comes to plant-based protein, hemp milk packs a good amount at 4 grams per 1 cup serving. (Whole milk has about 8 grams of protein per cup.) It's made from the seeds of the hemp plant and has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and a thin, watery texture. Hemp milk is a great candidate for adding to savory recipes, smoothies, puddings, and drinking on its own, too.

Average 8-ounce serving: 60 calories; 4.5 g fat; 0 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 3 g protein.

Plain, vanilla, and chocolate cartons of Silk oat milk
Courtesy of Silk

Oat Milk

Perhaps the trendiest nondairy milk of the moment, oat milk is simply a blend of oats and water. (Even popular nondairy beverage brand Silk joined the movement.) But oat milk usually has ingredients like oils and salt for a better texture and flavor. The dairy alternative is higher in protein, fiber, and calories (it's comparable to cow's milk nutrition-wise) than some milk alternatives. Like oats, it's slightly sweet and nutty, making it pleasant to drink alone or to make a dairy-free latte, and works well in both savory and sweet recipes. Like other nondairy milks, if you choose to make your own oat milk, you can make it even smoother and silkier by straining it through cheesecloth.

Average 8-ounce serving: 120 calories; 5 g fat; 16 g carbohydrates 5 g sugar; 3 g protein.

Quinoa Milk

Full of protein and fiber, the hearty grain you've been using in your plant-based lunch bowls can be turned into a low-calorie milk alternative. A blend of quinoa and water, quinoa milk is best for quinoa-lovers because it does still have a distinct quinoa taste (which is like a cross between rice and oatmeal. Slightly sweet and nutty, it pairs well poured over cereal or oatmeal. If you make your own, try sweetening it with honey or dates or boosting the flavor with a pinch of cinnamon.

Average 8-ounce serving: 108 calories; 6 g fat; 8 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 3 g protein.

Pea Protein Milk

Pea protein is used in the base recipe of a lot of those trendy plant-based meat burgers. Brands like Ripple and Sproud (Swedish-based company arriving in the U.S. in April) are making waves with milk made from peas. If you're concerned about the beverage tasting like those little green veggies, think again. Depending on the flavor you're buying, you'll get a slightly sweet and thick drink similar to dairy milk. There are vanilla and chocolate flavors that have been compared to milkshake flavors. The fact that its 100% vegan and free of dairy, nut, lactose, and gluten makes this a worthy consideration for anyone with food allergies. An 8-ounce serving of Ripple milk contains 8 grams of protein (the same as dairy milk) and 50% more calcium than a glass of 2% cow's milk. It's also fortified with healthy oils and vitamins, making it rich and creamy like real dairy.

Average 8-ounce serving: 70 calories; 4.5 g fat; 1 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 8 g protein.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is usually a bit thinner than other nondairy milks and is relatively low in fat and protein. However, rice milk has the advantage of being the safest milk alternative for many people with food allergies because it doesn't have any dairy, gluten, soy, or nuts. Rice milk has a mild flavor and is naturally sweet. It's made by boiling rice and blending it with water and a bit of sweetener. Because it's a sweet milk alternative, it's good for using in desserts, soups, and light sauces. You can use rice milk as a substitute in baking, but it's thinner than other nondairy milks so you'll also probably need to add an additional thickener like flour or cornstarch.

Average 8-ounce serving: 110 calories; 2 g fat; 20 g carbohydrates; 13 g sugar; 1 g protein.

Soy Milk

One of the most popular dairy alternatives out there, soy milk is a plant-based milk alternative made from soybeans. Soy milk has the advantage of having more protein than most other dairy-free milks and is comparable to cow's milk in terms of nutrition. Soy milk is rich and creamy, making it especially good for drinking straight out of a glass, adding to coffee, or pouring over cereal. It's also a good choice for a milk substitute in many baking recipes because it's similar in protein count to real dairy milk. It's stable when heated to high temperatures works in many creamy sauces, too.

Average 8-ounce serving: 122 calories; 4 g fat; 14 g carbohydrates; 9 g sugar; 7 g protein.

Walnut Milk in glass bottle
Andy Lyons

Walnut Milk

Walnut milk is as rich and creamy as cashew and almond milk. It's slightly higher in calories and protein than some other nut milks. Whip up a batch at home following the same process as other nut milks, then use it much like you would other nut milks. It's a great substitute in dessert recipes and delicious on its own (or added to coffee or a smoothie).

Per 8-ounce serving: 182 calories; 16 g fat; 8 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 4 g protein.

If dairy isn't a problem and you just need a quick substitute for milk in a pinch, try using other substitutes for milk. If you have a can of evaporated milk on hand, sub ½ cup combined with ½ cup of water to equal 1 cup of milk. You can also substitute 1 cup of water plus ⅓ cup of nonfat dry milk powder in place of 1 cup of milk.

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