With so many non-dairy alternatives offered in cafes and restaurants across the country and on grocery shelves, it’s hard to know which way to go. We’re not complaining about the multitude of options—there are plenty of reasons to sub your 2% for a nondairy alternative.
For one, plant-forward dieting is all the rage these days, with fitness experts and dietitians alike touting the benefits of limiting animal-based products in your diet. Malina Linkas Malkani, MS,RDN, CDN, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says the prevalence of sensitivities to lactose and casein (the protein found in cow’s milk) are major players in the uptick of the non-dairy trend.
But when making the switch or trying out alternatives in addition to your favorite dairy products, it’s important to note that not all substitutes are created equal. Personal preferences for flavor and texture needn’t be ignored, but Malkani says nutritionally-speaking, alternatives can vary greatly from one to the next.
Her top picks, to mimic the nutrient-density of dairy milk?
Soy and pea protein milks, which offer similar protein and calcium levels as cow’s milk. Though past studies once linked soy milk consumption to increased cancer risk, Malkani says the most recent evidence says otherwise. Meanwhile, pea protein is an equally-nutritious option (up to 10 grams of protein per cup!), and is safe for people with dairy, soy and nut sensitivities.
Though not so rich in protein, she also commends oat milk’s cholesterol-lowering abilities, thanks to its levels of soluble fiber. Plus, major players in the cafe industry like Blue Bottle Coffee and MatchaBar offer creamy oat milk as their exclusive dairy alternative— it’s creamy and froths well, so your flat white game doesn’t have to suffer.
Flavor-wise, there’s nothing wrong with consuming other non-dairy milks, like almond, coconut, rice and cashew, but Malkani notes they won’t pack the same nutritional punch.
“The majority of the healthy fats, fiber, protein and micronutrients found in almonds and cashews are lost during processing,” she explains, while rice and coconut milks’ low protein levels and respectively high amounts of carbs and saturated fats make them less appealing options. Above all, Malkani stresses the importance of reading the label. Go for unsweetened versions, when you can, to avoid added sugars and other undesirable additives.
And as for the ever-growing realm of nut butters, in response to an increasingly plant-forward and peanut-free world?
“With regard to nutritional value, all nut butters are excellent!” Malkani insists, for their resume of protein, fiber, healthy fats and vitamins. She lists almond as a first-rate choice, and highly recommends sunflower seed butter for nut-free living, for its high levels of magnesium and Vitamins A & E. “As a rule of thumb, the less processed and the fewer added ingredients like sweeteners, the better.”
There’s nothing wrong with a big glass of whole milk, or a good, old-fashioned PB&J. But trying out a new alternative just might introduce you to a new favorite.