The information for this article was compiled by Kaamilah Mitchell.

"Moo is moot.” “Pourable progress.” “Dairy-free. As it should be.” Plant-based milks are going on the offensive. Should you trade in your milk moustache for almond, coconut, soy, or peas? Which are better for you...and for the planet? Here’s our guide to the ever-churning alt-milk aisle.

1. Check calcium and vitamin D. Dairy milk is rich in nutrients. Among them: calcium (300 milligrams per cup) and added vitamin D (100 IU per cup—listed on newer labels as 2.5 mcg). Our Best Bites and Honorable Mentions have roughly that much or more.

Some dairy and plant milks now add twice as much vitamin D (200 IU, or 5 mcg). That’s a plus, since many people fall short on D. But calcium is complicated (see “Is More Calcium Better?”).

2. Consider vitamin B-12. Not all plant milks add B-12, but many do. Our Best Bites have at least as much as cow’s milk (about 1.2 mcg per cup).

That matters for vegans and older adults. A vegan diet excludes all of the dairy products and meats that supply B-12. But even if you eat those foods, 10 to 30 percent of adults over age 50 have too little stomach acid to digest their B-12. They need either a multivitamin or foods (like plant milks) that have added B-12.

3. Look for potassium. Milk’s potassium is harder to come by in the plant-milk aisle, so we didn’t require it in our Best Bites or Honorable Mentions.

But soy, pea, and some oat milks have enough naturally occurring or added potassium to mimic dairy. Almond, cashew, rice, coconut, flax, and hemp milks don’t.

4. Get enough protein. Does protein matter? It depends on what else you’re eating. But if you count on milk for protein, look for at least 7 grams per cup, which is typical for soymilk. (That’s the amount we required in our Best Bites.) Dairy milk has 8 grams. Most pea protein milks have 8 to 10 grams.

Expect no more than 1 gram of protein from a cup of most almond, coconut, flax, rice, or cashew milks. Most oat or hemp milks have 2 to 4 grams.

At least as much protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12 as cow's milk.

5. Minimize added sugar. A cup of cow’s milk has 3 teaspoons (12 grams) of naturally occurring lactose (milk sugar). Plant milks naturally have just 0 to 2 grams of sugar.

Odds are, your taste buds won’t want much more. Our added-sugar limit for Best Bites and Honorable Mentions is 5 grams (roughly 1 teaspoon). That’s about what you get in most “Original” varieties. Many vanillas (1½ to 3 teaspoons) and chocolates (3 to 5 teaspoons) add more.

6. Get healthy fats. If you drink cow’s milk, stick with 1% or fat-free to limit saturated dairy fat. That’s not an issue for plant-milk drinkers. Nuts, seeds, peas, and soy supply healthy fats. Just steer clear of coconut milk.

7. Skip rice milk. Arsenic is a human carcinogen and can impair learning in children. Rice soaks up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains do. With so many other options, why go there?

8 Think of the planet. Most nondairy milks tread more lightly on the Earth (see “Plants & the Planet”). Miss the taste of cow’s milk? Add a touch to your plant milk.

Click here for the full chart of our Best Bites and Honorable Mentions.

Hot oats

The best-tasting oat Honorable Mention.

Oat milk is the new kid on the block. A primer:

Added sugar. Some oat milks, like Oatly, use enzymes to break down some oat starch into sugar. That sugar counts as “added,” the FDA said in 2018. (Some brands are still fixing their labels to reflect that.)

So it doesn’t matter that Pacific Organic Vanilla Oat milk is “sweetened with oats” and has “no added cane sugar.” To your body, its hefty dose of oat sugar (4½ teaspoons per cup) is more than a third of a day’s added-sugar limit.

Carbs & protein. You’re sipping liquefied grains, so even “plain” oat milks contain slightly more carbs (10 to 15 grams per cup) and less protein (2 to 4 grams) than soy or pea milks.

Fat & calories. “Extra creamy” or “full fat” varieties have more calories (120 to 160 per cup), thanks to their extra (healthy) fat.

Taste. Oat milk comes closer to cow’s milk than most other non-dairies. Our fave Honorable Mention: Planet Oat Extra Creamy Original. Über-creamy Oatly just missed our added-sugar limit.

Free market

Gluten-free? Check oat milk labels.

Which “free” claims matter?

Gluten-free. Need to avoid gluten? Most plant milks are okay (so is cow’s milk). The exception: some oat milks. Oats (which are gluten-free) can get contaminated with other grains in the field or in processing facilities. Califia Farms, Chobani, Oatly, and Planet Oat are certified gluten-free or are tested to be sure.

Carrageenan-free. Most plant milks now use gums like gellan or locust bean instead.

No artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners. We found no plant milks with those ingredients. And all are free of lactose (milk sugar).

Plants & the planet

Source: Science 360: 987, 2018  (with additional calculations by author J. Poore).

“Plant based is planet based,” says alt-milk maker Califia. True enough. Here’s what it takes to produce an average cup of dairy, oat, soy, almond, or rice milk in North America, researchers estimate:

Greenhouse gasses. Milking cows instead of plants releases roughly 2½ to 3½ times as many pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalents.

Water. Oat and soy beat dairy. Almonds and rice are thirstier.

Land. Plants win by a landslide. Dairy milk gobbles up some 2½ to 8 times as much land.

Is more calcium better?

Need more calcium? Check your diet.

“40% more calcium than milk,” says Califia Farms Original Almondmilk. Do you need more?

Depends. Tally 250 milligrams of calcium for each serving of dairy you typically eat (150 mg for greek yogurt), then toss in 250 mg for the rest of your diet.

Your goal: 1,000 mg a day from milk, food, and (if needed) supplements. The target jumps to 1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70.

But more isn’t better. Taking a daily supplement with 1,000 mg or more may raise the risk of kidney stones. And getting 2,000 mg a day or more is linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer.

Pea is for protein

For protein, pick pea or soy milk.

Want protein but don’t like soy? Give peas a chance.

Ripple (8 grams of protein per cup) and Bolthouse Farms (10 grams) were the best-tasting Best Bites. Both brands’ Original pea protein milks add just a teaspoon of sugar. Or go Unsweetened.

Another good bet: Silk Protein, a pea, almond, and cashewmilk blend with 10 grams of protein per cup. The Original and Unsweet flavors are Honorable Mentions because they don’t have B-12.

Tip: Pea-protein milks are named “Protein” or “Plant-based,” not “Pea Milk.”

Illustration: lightgirl/

Photos: Ripple Foods (left), Silk (right), Kaamilah Mitchell/CSPI, Oatly, Califia Farms, Silk.