Pros and cons of plant-based milks: Is a plant-based milk right for you?

Peanut milk is one of the newer plant-based alternatives.

ByABC News via GMA logo
February 15, 2018, 3:56 PM

— -- There is no shortage of non-dairy milk alternatives on the market these days, from soy to almond, cashew, coconut and even peanut milk.

One thing to get clear: These aren’t really “milks” but rather liquids that mix ground nuts and water and can substitute for cow’s milk.

Various types of vegan milk with ingredients.
Getty Images/Foodcollection

Soy milk is the most nutritionally-balanced of the plant-based milk alternatives, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by researchers at Canada’s McGill University, compared the nutritional values of almond milk, soy milk, rice milk and coconut milk to cow’s milk.

It found cow’s milk to be the most nutritional option, followed by soy milk, which had the most protein and tied for the most calcium per serving among non-dairy alternatives.

The study identified the pros and cons of each alternative milk, including soy.

How do you know if a plant-based “milk” is right for you?

If you need or choose to try plant-based milk, the one you choose should depend on a combination of factors including allergies, taste and your diet, according to Cynthia Sass, a New York City-based registered dietitian and the author of "Slim Down Now."

Read below for the pros and cons of different types of plant-based milk, as identified by McGill University researchers, along with Sass's perspective on each.

Soy milk: Great for vegans

Soy Milk
Getty Images/amana images RF

Pros: Rich in protein and promotes a balanced diet.

Cons: A beany flavor and the presence of “anti-nutrients," defined in the study as substances that reduce nutrient intake and digestion.

Dietitian's take: Soy is one of the common eight allergens. It can also trigger unwanted symptoms in people who are soy intolerant or soy sensitive, including bloating, digestive pain, fatigue, headache, and skin reactions. It may be best for vegans, who have more limited protein sources (as long as they aren’t allergic or intolerant).

Almond milk: Great for calorie-watchers

A glass of almond milk stands amid almond seeds in this undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/ Getty Images

Pros: Almonds have a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) that are considered helpful in weight loss and weight management.

Cons: Lacks some essential nutrients.

Dietitian's take: Unsweetened almond milk can provide as few as 30 calories per cup and just one gram of carbohydrates. Most brands are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. It’s a great replacement for milk in cereal, smoothies, and coffee for people who get plenty of protein from other sources and are watching calories and carbs.

Rice milk: Great for athletes

Rice Milk
Getty Images

Pros: Lactose-free and can act as an alternative for patients with allergy issues caused by soybeans and almonds.

Cons: Rice milk varies widely in its nutrient profile, putting infants at risk for malnutrition.

Dietitian's take: Low in protein and fat, rice milk’s calories primarily come from carbohydrates. It’s a good option for athletes or active people, especially pre-exercise (in smoothies, oatmeal, or cold cereal), particularly those with nut, dairy, and soy sensitivities.

Coconut milk: Great for cooking

Coconut Milk
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Pros: Consumption can help reduce levels of harmful low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) that are associated with cardiovascular diseases.

Cons: No proteins, rich in (saturated) fat.

Dietitian's take: The richness of coconut milk makes it an ideal dairy replacement for certain recipes, like, soup, cream sauce, pudding, and ice cream. Great for people who enjoy cooking rich dishes but are trying to consume more plant-based meals and less animal fat.

More plant-based alternatives to know about.

Cashew milk: Great for calorie-watchers

A glass of cashew nut milk with cashew nuts.
Getty Images/Foodcollection

One cup of unsweetened cashew milk is low in calories, typically around 25 calories, and fat, usually just two grams.

Cashew milk does not contain the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein found in a handful of cashews though because all that disappears when the pulp is strained from the milk.

Dietitian's take: Unsweetened cashew milk is one of the lowest calorie plant options with just 25 calories per cup. Most brands are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Like almond milk, cashew milk is a good alternative for those watching calories and carbohydrates who aren’t looking for protein from their milk substitute. Some may prefer the flavor of cashew milk over almond milk if they prefer cashews to almonds.

Peanut milk: Great for fish eaters

Elmhurst Peanut Milk.

Elmhurst, a family-owned company, sells what it bills as America's first peanut milk. The peanuts come from Georgia peanut farms and pack six grams of protein in every eight-ounce glass, according to the company's website.

Each eight-ounce serving also contains 150 calories, five grams of sugar and 11 grams of fat.

Dietitian's take: Peanuts are a common allergen. Peanuts also provide more omega-6 fatty acids. An excess of these fats, unbalanced with omega-3s, may be tied to inflammation and obesity. If you prefer peanut milk, also include healthful sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel.

Hemp milk: Great for vegans

Hemp Milk by the brand Living Harvest.
Living Harvest

Hemp milk is made from soaking hemp seeds in water and grinding them. One eight-ounce serving has around 100 calories, five grams of sugar and three grams of protein.

Dietitian's take: Hemp isn’t a common allergen and while it’s not the highest in the protein of the plant options, hemp does contain complete protein, meaning it packs all of the amino acids needed for repair and healing of protein tissues in the body. The fat in hemp also includes both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Great for vegans who are soy intolerant.