Nut milks are made from ground nuts and water. They’re lower in calories than even nonfat cow’s milk, but have the same amount of fat (about 2 grams per cup) as 1 percent milk. Most of the fat in nut milk is the healthier monounsaturated kind, though, while the fat in cow’s milk is mostly saturated fat. And you’ll get plenty of calcium and vitamin D from most nut milks because they are usually fortified.
Almond milk and other nut milks do have some nutritional shortfalls. For example, a cup of 1 percent fat cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein, but hazelnut milk has only 2 grams, and cashew and almond milk might contain 1 gram or less. By comparison, low-fat plain soy milk, contains 4 to 6 grams of protein. Another potential downside is added sugar. Certain sweetened cashew and almond milks contain almost 2 teaspoons of added sweeteners per cup. Thus unsweetened nut milks are a healthier choice.
Coconut milk is slightly different. Not to be confused with the thicker, fattier stuff in cans, coconut milk is watered down to match cow’s milk consistency and fat content. It is usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but it has zero protein and 4 to 5 grams of mostly saturated fat, so it’s best avoided.
The biggest difference between nut-based milk and dairy milk is that the former doesn’t naturally contain the high amount of calcium found in dairy milk. So if you’re after calcium, look for brands fortified with calcium. The other big difference is the protein content: about 8 grams per one-cup serving of dairy milk vs. less in the nut varieties, except, as noted, soy milk. Nut milk might contain some vitamins and other nutrients not found in regular milk, such as fiber and vitamin E.
Getting enough vitamin D from your diet can be a challenge if you’re not much of a milk drinker or don’t spend much time in the sun. That’s because dairy milk, which is usually fortified with the bone-friendly nutrient, is one of the few foods that contain D in abundant amounts. But the nut milks may be a good option for getting vitamin D, especially now, since many milk alternatives are fortified with vitamin D, containing almost as much as cow’s milk. And since the Food and Drug Administration has recently increased the amount of vitamin D that can be added to both dairy milk and milk alternatives, you can now get up to 205 international units (IU) of D in an 8-ounce glass of your favorite dairy substitute. That’s almost twice as much as a milk drink could contain before the rule change. The recommended target is 600 IU per day for adults up to age 70 and 800 IU per day after that.
Another problem avoided by nut milks is that of lactose intolerance, often a cause of abdominal cramping and diarrhea. In contrast to dairy milk, none of these products contains lactose and thus anyone with this disorder may ingest them at will, including in cooking, etc.
The nut milks in general offer an excellent alternative to cow’s milk. But to get all the benefits, you must check the labels. Make sure you are getting adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D. Avoid added sugar. Also check the protein content; if in doubt, soy milk is the best option.
The rest is up to your taste!