Plant-based milk is here to stay
Nowadays you have a real milk buffet for that morning cereal or cup of coffee. Sure, there’s cow’s milk.
But plant-based milk alternatives, such as oat milk, rice milk, and even hazelnut and pistachio milks abound. Two staples — soy milk and almond milk — are still popular.
And for good reason.
People often choose this milk if they follow a plant-based diet or if they have a lactose intolerance or dairy allergy. Plus, the milks tend to have a lower carb count than dairy milks, making them good options for anyone on a low-carb diet.
Some people simply prefer these milk alternatives because of their taste.
According to Research and Markets, a global marketing research firm, the plant-based milk market in the United States is expected to be a $21.5 billion industry by 2024.
So let’s take a closer look at two of the most popular plant-based milks out there: soy milk and almond milk. Here’s what you need to know about their nutrition, benefits, and which nutritionists prefer.
What is almond milk and how is it made?
No, you can’t actually milk almonds. (Or soybeans, for that matter.) The term “almond milk” has more to do with the consistency and appearance of the liquid than with how it’s made.
The drink is made from almonds and water. To make almond milk, mix the ingredients together and strain the mixture to remove the almond pieces. The milk has a nutty flavor and a light, creamy texture.
“Almond milk is a great low-calorie dairy alternative that’s a great source of vitamin E,” says Kelsey Lorencz, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Saginaw, Michigan, and owner of Graciously Nourished. “You’ll find it’s often fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins like riboflavin to help improve its nutritional value.”
What is soy milk and how is it made?
“Soy milk is a great alternative to dairy, especially if you’re looking for a protein equivalent,” says Lorencz. “Most soy milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.”
Like almond milk, it gets its name from its milky consistency and appearance.
Soy milk is usually made by soaking soybeans in water overnight and then grinding the beans with water, according to the Encyclopedia of food sciences and nutrition. It has a slightly sweet taste and a creamy texture.
How are almond and soy milks used?
With almond or soy milk, you can do pretty much anything you would do with cow’s milk. Add it to smoothies, use it in overnight oats, make a latte, or eat a bowl of cereal.
Soy milk nutrition
Here are the nutrition facts and percentages of Daily Values (DV), for 1 cup of shelf-stable, unsweetened soy milk:
Fat: 5 g (6 percent RDI)
cholesterol: 0 mg (0 percent RDA)
Sodium: 76 mg (3 percent RDA)
Carbohydrates: 3 g (1 percent DV)
Fiber: 0 g (0 percent RDA)
Egg white: 8 g (16 percent DV)
Vitamin D: 2 g (10 percent RDI)
Calcium: 229 mg (18 percent RDA)
Iron: 1 mg (6 percent RDA)
Potassium: 358 mg (8 percent RDA)
almond milk nutrition
Here are the nutrition facts — including percentage of the Daily Value — for 1 cup of shelf-stable, unsweetened almond milk:
Fat: 3 g (3 percent DV)
cholesterol: 0 mg (0 percent RDA)
Sodium: 136 mg (6 percent RDA)
Carbohydrates: 1 g (1 percent DV)
Fiber: 0 g (0 percent RDA)
Egg white: 1 g (2 percent DV)
Vitamin D: 2 µg (10 percent RDA)
Calcium: 392 mg (30 percent RDA)
Iron: 1 mg (6 percent RDA)
Potassium: 70 mg (2 percent RDA)
Health Benefits Of Soy And Almond Milk
Soy and almond milks are healthy plant-based milks.
When unsweetened, they are low in sugar and lower in carbohydrates than cow’s milk, making them good options for people with diabetes.
While they are both solid alternatives to cow’s milk, they each offer specific health benefits.
Soy milk contains complete proteins
An important benefit of soy milk? Its protein content.
“Soy milk is a plant-based source of complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot make,” says registered dietitian Lisa Andrews, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Soy milk is good for your ticker
This plant-based milk can help your heart health.
“Soy milk contains isoflavones, which have been shown to [total] cholesterol and LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in individuals with elevated levels,” said Michelle Routhenstein, a cardiology dietitian and owner of Entirely Nourished in New York City.
She adds that soy has heart-healthy antioxidant effects and estrogen-like effects that also positively affect blood vessels.
Almond milk is low in calories
Although it contains less protein than soy milk (and is not a source of complete protein), this milk contains fewer calories than soy milk.
“It might be better for someone who needs to keep a close eye on calories,” Andrews says.
Almost milk is good for your bones
Parents give children cow’s milk to keep their bones strong, a benefit that comes from its high calcium content.
“[Almond milk] is higher in calcium than regular and soy milks because of fortification,” Andrews says.
Almond milk is packed with vitamin E
Like almonds, almond milk is rich in vitamin E. “This is a powerful antioxidant that is healthy for the heart,” says Routhenstein.
Health Disadvantages of Soy and Almond Milk
There are a few downsides to any milk product to be aware of, but first let’s dispel a common misconception about soy milk: It doesn’t increase your risk of cancer.
People used to worry about the phytoestrogens in soy milk.
“These can act as estrogen or anti-estrogen in the body,” Lorencz says. “They are known as an endocrine disruptor and can disrupt our natural endocrine system. This is not a concern for most people, and the health benefits outweigh any negative effects.”
In fact, it may even lower the risk of breast cancer.
The effect of soy milk on the thyroid
If you have poor thyroid function or are taking levothyroxine (Synthroid) for hypothyroidism, limit your intake of soy milk, Routhenstein advises.
Soy milk is a goitrogenic food, she says, meaning it can inhibit thyroid function.
Some people are allergic to soy and of course should not drink soy milk. That said, allergies like this aren’t common.
A survey from 2020 in Nutrition today found that the prevalence of allergies to soybeans is lower than that of the other top allergens (that is, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and wheat.
Almond milk contains little protein
Traditional almond milk is low in protein, with only 1 gram per cup. Certain almond milks contain more almonds – and therefore more protein and other nutrients.
For example, one brand of unsweetened almond milk has 100 calories per cup and contains 4 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber. These amounts are higher than the average cup of almond milk.
You either want to look for higher-protein versions of almond milk or make sure you’re meeting your protein needs by eating other protein-rich foods.
Is one or the other better for the environment?
Many people choose to follow a plant-based diet for its environmental benefits. But choosing a more environmentally friendly product is difficult.
“Both almond milk and soy milk have a better environmental impact than cow’s milk, but both have some drawbacks,” Routhenstein says. “Almond milk, for example, uses one of the lowest gas emissions; however, it consumes the most water.”
According to a report by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, it takes nearly four times as much water to grow almonds as soybeans.
“It uses about half of what’s needed for cow’s milk, but much more than what’s needed for soy milk,” Andrews says.
But that doesn’t automatically make soy milk a better bet from an environmental point of view.
“Soy milk uses less water,” Routhenstein says. “However, because of its mass production, it has destroyed a lot of forests for land.”
Advice for all types of plant-based milk
Whatever type of plant-based milk you’re looking for, opt for unsweetened milk if possible. Sweetened milk contains added sugars.
And where possible, look for milk without certain additives. This includes carrageenan, a controversial ingredient found in some almond milks that some experts say is harmful.
Routhenstein also advises avoiding milk with phosphorus additives, such as disodium phosphate, which can promote inflammation.
Soy Milk vs. Almond Milk: Which Milk Is Better?
Soy or almond milk can be a good choice for anyone on a plant-based diet or who is lactose intolerant.
But Andrews, Lorencz and Routhenstein all prefer soy.
“Soy milk has more protein, more potassium, more isoflavones, and more nutrients than almond milk,” says Routhenstein.
Next, here are the best plant-based protein sources.