The Healthiest Milk for Your Coffee, According to Registered Dietitians
Three experts share the health benefits of alternative milk compared to cow’s, and reveal their milk of choice.
Last summer, a Tiktok video about coffee went viral: “Good morning, everybody,” the speaker began. “Did you know, if you replace your morning cup of coffee with a nice hot cup of green tea, that you can lose up to 87 percent of the f*cking little joy you have left in this life?”
I think of this every time I’m about to order a cappuccino not with traditional cow’s milk, but with almond milk, which I perceive as the greener, healthier option. It’s void of natural sugar and saturated fat…and also creaminess and froth, a.k.a. the principles of a cappuccino. As I stand at the counter, the barrister waiting for me to make a decision, I consider my options: a coffee that’s arguably better for me and the environment, or one that can provide a little more joy. Do I really have to choose?
Absolutely not, says Vineet Sidhu, a registered dietitian and neuroscientist at Fortify in Winnipeg. There are some plant-based milks that are rich in nutrients, low in sugar and saturated fat, boast a creamy texture and have the ability to froth—you just have to choose the right one.
But, that proves to be a challenge—there are many options available (almond, hemp, coconut, oat, soy, potato), and they all have caveats. What’s good for one person may not be good for another; likewise, what makes a good addition to a black coffee may not make a good ingredient for a cappuccino.
Here, three registered dietitians share their thoughts and expertise to help you choose the right milk for you.
First, the deal with cow’s milk
Studies show fewer people have been drinking cow’s milk over the past few years—and the number of alt milks on offer at your local coffee shop supports that. According to Sidhu, this is due to a number of reasons, including health concerns (such as lactose intolerance, allergies or heart health problems, in which people want to avoid dairy and/or reduce their intake of saturated fats), morally-derived reasons (like veganism or environmental concerns) and cultural traditions (part of a community where cow’s milk isn’t consumed).
Others are turned off of cow’s milk simply because it’s high in fat, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unhealthy pick. “Cow’s milk is a great source of protein and calcium,” says Vandana Gujadhur, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. A reminder: Protein helps you stay fuller longer and calcium is essential for bone health.
But you can get vitamins and minerals from alternative milks, too. Aside from their natural health benefits, many of them are “fortified with certain nutrients to match the nutrient profile of cow’s milk,” says Gujadhur.
Almond milk is low in fat, carbohydrates, protein and calories. “If someone is trying to keep their calorie count down, then almond milk is a good choice,” says Gujadhur.
But almond milk is also low in nutrients. “It’s basically just flavoured water,” says Nanci Guest, a registered dietitian in Collingwood, Ontario. “You’re not really getting any nutritional value out of almond milk, because there could be just one or two almonds in a cup.”
Even so, some baristas have found a way to get a thick froth with almond milk. The secret: You’ll need freshly made almond milk that contains more than just two almonds.
Another popular plant-based milk is oat milk, which has more fibre than most other non-dairy alternatives, says Gujadhur. It has a naturally sweet taste that makes it a good choice for cereal and smoothies. It’s also creamy, rich in flavour and can froth. What’s more, it’s typically fortified with micronutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins, so it has health benefits, too.
“In my own experience, oat milk often tends to be the milk alternative people use when they want to move away from dairy, as it offers a comparable flavour and texture,” says Sidhu.
But oat milk isn’t the best choice for everyone. Sidhu says she wouldn’t suggest it for people with diabetes, in particular, because it’s high in sugar and carbohydrates. “That might raise more glucose in an individual than almond or soy milk might,” she says. Oat milk contains gluten, too, so it’s not a good option for people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease.
Soy milk was the first commercially available plant-based milk in North America, and it continues to be the most popular—and for good reason. “Soy milk is among the few plant milks that is high in protein, comparable to that of cow’s milk,” says Gujadhur.
Soy milk contains isoflavones, which have estrogen-like effects, and there have been concerns about the impact it can have on the body. But research indicates that isoflavones can actually help to lower the risk of cancer.
Since soy milk does contain estrogenic properties, Sidhu recommends it more for women who are going through menopause and are not producing as much estrogen, to help prevent osteoporosis.
Coconut milk has a little bit more fat than other alt milks, and that means it can hold froth better, says Gujadhur.
Not only is it high in fat, but, naturally, calories too, so it’s best for people who are trying to increase their energy intake, she says.
Hemp milk is a great source of polyunsaturated fats, which can help reduce bad cholesterol levels, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke. What’s more, Gujadhur says, it has a creamy texture, making it perfect for coffee and tea.
The catch: It has an “earthy” taste and chalky texture, which may not appeal to everyone.
Are we missing any nutrients by not drinking cow’s milk?
Since cow’s milk provides adequate levels of protein and calcium, you should find a replacement source for that protein and calcium you may be missing out on, says Guest. “For my clients who don’t want to eat breakfast, I tell them to get a large soy latte, because that gives them eight grams of protein—that’s a decent source of protein,” she says.
Most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin A, D, and B12, so it’s easy to replace any lost nutrition. But often organic plant milks are not fortified, says Guest.
And that also goes for homemade plant milk—it lacks essential nutrients found in cow’s milk since there’s no fortification, says Gujadhur. “But as long as your nutrient needs are met through the consumption of other foods during the day, there’s no problem. If plant milk replaces cow’s milk in the diet without taking the rest of the day’s nutrient consumption into consideration, then fortified plant milk is better.”
Who may want to consider switching from cow’s milk to a plant-based alternative?
The main reasons someone should consider moving away from dairy are cultural beliefs, allergies, intolerances and heart health conditions. “Cow’s milk has more saturated fats (as does coconut milk) which should be avoided by those with heart conditions,” says Sidhu.
If you suspect dairy gives you blemishes and are considering swapping cow’s milk for oat, check this out: A 2016 study found that high glycemic foods may exacerbate acne. If that’s the case, cow’s milk is actually a better option than the highly glycemic oat milk.
What kind of environmental impact does milk have?
Dairy makes a significant impact because of the land use it requires—not just to farm the cows, but also to grow the grain they need to eat. “That means a lot of land is changed over from forest or other vegetation,” says Guest. “Then there’s all the water and energy use, and emissions.” The energy requirement for cow’s milk is about 10 times that of most plant milk, she says.
After cow’s milk, almond milk has the second-largest environmental impact. It uses more water than other plant-based milks—but still significantly lower than what’s used for cow’s milk.
What do the experts drink?
Gujadhur drinks cow’s milk—specifically, A2 milk. “It’s a homogenized milk that undergoes less processing such as pasteurization, homogenization and fortification compared to commercial plant milk.” A2 milk is known for being easy to digest, and Gujadhur says it has a great flavour, too.
Sidhu also opts for cow’s milk, but swaps it out for oat milk on occasion. “I drink dairy when it’s important for me that the flavour is true to dairy milk, like with chai tea,” she says, “But on the other hand, I do love drinking cappuccinos, and I find that oat milk froths the best for that.”
Guest chooses soy, primarily because of the protein it offers. “Soy is one of the few foods that can say it’s heart-healthy on the label,” she says. “Also, the plant estrogens actually help lower the risk of breast cancer, and it’s better for climate and the environment—so it ticks off all the boxes.”
Now that you know about the best plant-based milks, find out how a trendy plant-based egg compares to the real thing.
Renée Reardin is an editor at Best Health and the author of a newsletter called Curious Chat, where she finds answers to health questions just like this one. Subscribe below!