Dr. Fernstrom: What's the best milk alternative for YOUR lifestyle?

NBC News' health editor lays out key details about some of the most popular plant-based options, including soy, almond, rice, coconut and oat milk.
NBC News health editor Madelyn Fernstrom discusses mental health awareness with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
NBC News health editor Madelyn Fernstrom discusses mental health awareness with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Miller Hawkins

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By Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD

In both supermarkets and coffeehouses, milk options have expanded to include a lot of plant alternatives. It’s great to have so many choices, but it can be overwhelming to pick which one, if any, is best for you.

If you choose carefully and read the labels, these milk substitutes (derived from nuts, legumes, seeds and grain) can be a solid, nutrient dense choice.

Why drink milk?

Milk is one of nature’s highest quality proteins and a naturally rich source of calcium and other vitamins and minerals; it’s also fortified with Vitamin D, a super boost for bone and tooth health. And while the fat content of milk can vary, from whole to non-fat, the nutrients remain the same. Milk is a healthy option for those who choose, except if you’re lactose intolerant or have a milk protein allergy.

Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in milk that can cause digestive issues like gas and bloating for people who lack the enzyme (lactase) to digest it. If you’re lactose intolerant, you can still get the nutrient benefits of milk by choosing lactose-free milk – like Lactaid or Fairlife. It’s real milk; the lactose is just pre-digested and eliminated.

What are milk-alternatives?

Milk is officially classified as a product coming from cows, sheep, or goats (hooved animals). And while the term “milk” is sometimes used with nut, seed, legume, and grain products, regulatory discussions in the U.S. are ongoing to stop using the word “milk” for plant-based drinks; this already passed in Canada.

Plant based “milks” are basically the nut, seed or grain soaked and mixed with water, with the solids strained out (but sometimes blended in). Depending on the naturally-occurring nutrients, protein, vitamins, minerals and/or fats are added to boost the nutrient profile.

RELATED: Is milk really good for you?

Note: It’s important to read the label, as extra sugars are often added to boost the taste profile. When choosing a plant-based product, always look for “unsweetened” or “no sugar added”

Here are some key details about some of the most popular plant-based options.

Soy

-highest quality protein

-matches the amount of protein of milk per cup (around 8 grams)

-matches calories of non-fat milk, around 80 calories per cup

-rich in health-boosting isoflavones

Pea

-moderate quality protein

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-around 8 grams per cup

-taste profile not for everyone

-often blended with other plant drinks

Almond

-low protein and nutrients

-often fortified to boost nutrient profile

-lowest calorie choice: 35-40 calories per cup (unsweetened)

-read labels carefully for added sugars

Oat

-good source of fiber

-contains beta-glucans supporting heart health

-low protein

-not for gluten sensitive or celiac people

Coconut

-trendy “tropical” taste

-low protein and nutrients

-high in saturated fat (artery clogging)

-use sparingly for flavor, rather than by the glassful

Hemp

-good source of calcium

-good source of heart healthy fats

-“nutty” taste, but can taste bitter to many

-watch out for added sugars

Rice

-very low allergen – good if food allergies a problem

-low nutrients

-mild taste

-beware of added sugars

Plant-based drinks can be a regular, nutrient-rich part of your diet if you choose. As with every food, balance the taste, nutrient profile, calories and cost as part of your overall dietary strategy.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.